The holidays are a time of great joy, laughter, learning experiences, sensory awakenings, and fabulous opportunities with family and friends. Unfortunately keeping the holidays full of merriment and cheer is almost impossible to sustain twenty-four hours a day, every day of the week, especially when you have a child on the autism spectrum. It's that time of year for school field trips and parties, family visits, decorations galore and holiday shopping when the stores are busier than ever. All of this activity makes it easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and makes it more difficult to maintain the comfortable routine your family is used to.
The holiday hustle and bustle also impacts our senses in ways we don't realize. Sensory overload is very common during the holidays, for us as well as our children. If you have a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) preventing sensory overload is obvious. But many children these days have sensory sensitivities that may not warrant a diagnosis of SPD. Whether on or off the autism spectrum, it's important to stay in tune to your child's sensory triggers to keep the holidays calm and peaceful for everyone.
Here are a few strategies and ideas to help the whole family get through this season with lots of smiling people and as many joyful memories as possible.
For the child who is sensitive to light:
- Traveling sunglasses. If your child is sensitive to bright lights you should always be prepared with a set of sunglasses. Dropping in on Uncle Jim who is competing to have the best-lit house on his block may be too much for anyone’s eyes to adjust to. Always have a supply of cheap yet fun sunglasses on hand to shade your child’s eyes from glaring department store lights or the Christmas tree blinkers. You never know where you will find them.
For the child who is sensitive to touch:
- Handling holiday huggers. This one is very difficult to address, especially with grandparents that just want to hug their grandchild to bits and pieces out of sheer love and joy. Some children love the deep pressure and will spend many happy times getting squeezes and cheek-pinches. Other children might flinch, back away or freak out or even hit, especially if startled by the touch.
Teach your children ways to politely let people know they don’t want to be touched. Either with a non-verbal signal, such as outstretched hand in STOP signal mode or with words, such as, "No, I don't want to be hugged, but I will shake your hand." This allows your child to experience a feeling of control and hopefully success in communicating.
- Dress for comfort. Many parents want their children to look their best for the holidays, especially for those photo sessions. But who can have fun and relax when they’re uncomfortable? The most important thing for your child to be wearing during the holidays is a smile. Be willing to make compromises and respect your child’s honesty when she says, “This itches too much.”
Arguing with her statement will only risk a potential meltdown later in the day when she absolutely can’t stand it anymore – if you were even able to get her to wear the itchy item in the first place. Feel free to cut off tags, turn clothing inside out so they don't feel the seams, or even wear a special pair of pj's. It's a holiday and kids are cute, you can get away with it!
For the child who is sensitive to sound:
- Minimizing noise. If your child enjoys music, plugging him into some relaxing tunes or his favorite songs will certainly help create a buffer from the clatter. Many children also benefit from wearing earplugs or noise minimizing headphones during big family gatherings or at busy stores. They won't block out all the noise but may dull the noise enough to help.
- Scout out a place of respite. Wherever your travels take you during the holidays, be it grandma’s house, the airport or shopping, find a nice quiet space away from every one for a possible get-away. Bring your child's favorite snuggly, blanket or feel-good object for extra comfort. Don't be afraid to say to relatives, "Her body needs some quiet time" and bring her to the previously identified place of respite so she can relax and regroup. Whether you stay with her or not, you or she will know when it is time to rejoin the group.
For the child with sensitive tastes or a delicate tummy:
- B.Y.O.F.- Bring Your own food. Holidays provide a great opportunity to try new foods. Taking a bite of cranberry for the first time can be a delight or a nightmare. If you know your child isn't going to eat what your host has served, be honest. Definitely let them know of any allergies ahead of time and if the list of your child’s taste sensitivities is too long, bring an alternative food and don't apologize for it.
If the only thing your child will eat is a bologna sandwich for Thanksgiving dinner, so be it, as long as the reason for it is a legitimate sensory issue. Giving in to a child’s minor dislikes too easily will develop an expectancy for future requests to be honored and you will be contributing to the picky eater syndrome.
For the child with a sensitive nose:
- Develop scent awareness. Be cautious of scents that you place around the house during the holiday season. A child with a sensitive nose may not react well to different smells. Potpourri, air fresheners and scented candles in particular can carry very intense odors that could be responsible for contributing to an outburst. Consider purchasing unscented products and stick to natural aromas. Be careful though, even the wonderful smell of a fresh cut Christmas tree might be overwhelming to the senses of some children on the autism spectrum.
As parents, you know your child better than anyone and are aware of your child’s sensitivities but as your child develops, new sensitivities can arise. Paying attention to clues and noticing new reactions right from the start can go a long way towards preventing unnecessary meltdowns due to sensory overloads. Don’t let something as avoidable as this put a damper on your holiday celebrations this season.
For more ideas to ensure your holidays are stress-free click here to access this ebook on Kindle, Autism Parenting: How to Have a Happy Holiday with your Child on the Spectrum.