02/09/2016 01:04 EST | Updated 02/09/2017 05:12 EST

6 Ways To Help Special Needs Children Understand Valentine's Day

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Valentine's Day is known as the day of love and celebrating that love. Some people consider it a marketing holiday, some could care less about celebrating it, and for others, and it marks an important day to remember those we love and care about and show them that love and caring.

For a parent of a special needs child, many of us are faced with the challenges of a day when our children, many of whom don't like touch, affection or cannot understand the meaning, and wonder how to go about celebrating this day. After all, even if we decide not to mark the day in our homes, at daycare and school, there are Valentine card exchanges, parties and as our kids get older, the pressure to eat all the sugar and chocolate build up. That's another difficulty for children on the autism spectrum and/or with other food allergies. What's a parent to do?

In our house, our son fortunately does not have allergies, but we do keep sugar to a minimum, and his school celebrates with cards but no goodies. The teachers will give out little heart erasers etc. Until about two years ago though, my son really didn't "get" Valentine's and would be confused about what was happening. Here are some tools and tips that helped me explain it to him. Now, like his mother, it is one of his favourite holidays. 

6 Tools to Help Special Needs Children Understand Valentine's Day:

1. Put up decorations around the house: The first thing I started doing was decorating for this holiday, like I do for Christmas and Easter, albeit on a smaller scale. This helps, as a lot of special needs children are visual learners. Seeing all those hearts led to a discussion of what the meaning of the holiday is and why we celebrate it.

2. Make crafts and made cards for friends: I would buy construction paper and make hearts, buy little cards for friends at preschool and school, and talk about how people hug and kiss those closest to them to wish them Happy Valentine's Day. For others, simply wishing them verbally is OK too.

3. Speak about the candy and chocolates people eat on this day: Of course introducing food is a good thing as your child will see it somewhere. Remember though, there are sugarless candies, and healthier snack alternatives that you can make in heart shape if you can't or don't want to introduce basic chocolate or candy.

4. Model wishing each other and spending quality family time, no expensive presents: This is probably the most important one. After my son Michael became verbal and started understanding celebrations, like for other holidays, his father and I made sure to show him we exchange cards, chocolates, have a nice dinner as a family, but don't go crazy spending money on each other. The most important thing is to spend time with family and friends and do things that show you love them, like laugh, watch a movie, and enjoy a meal or go for a walk together. 

5. Use sign language to tell others how you feel (for children who do not want to be touched and are not verbal): This is good for children who are extremely sensitive to touch and cannot use words to share their feelings. They can sign to family and friends to show they care.

6. Read stories about the day that kids can relate to: I would choose stories from the Franklin the Turtle series, Little Critter Books, etc. as these are my son's favourite books to read on a regular day. Seeing how his favourites handle the holidays, gives him ideas on what to do.

Regardless of how you sensitize your child to Valentine's Day (and those around him/her) about how to act on this day, as long as it is a positive family experience you are on the right track. Just remember to trust your instincts as a parent. Here's wishing you and your children a Happy Valentine's Day!

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