The holidays are here! You’re ordering pumpkin spice everything and those cinnamon-y pine cones are popping up everywhere! (Yes, cinnamon-y is a word.) I savor every single *drop* of Christmas, because before you know it, the holidays are over, and all I’m left with is a stuffed recycling bin and a muffin top. (Who am I kidding… I already have the muffin top.)
Unfortunately, not everyone in my house shares my affinity for decking the halls. When I start telling my husband about my visions of sugar plums and homemade popcorn garlands, he talks me down off the Christmas cliff. I can tend to overwhelm myself.
The holiday season can be overwhelming for anyone, particularly a young child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Sensory Integration (or Sensory Processing) Disorder. These sensitivities are not just limited to ASD and affect more people than you might think. Having a child on the Autism Spectrum, I’ve realized: my version of fun is not always my child’s version of fun. Most children on the Autism Spectrum prefer predictability and routine, and it’s our job to make our children feel safe. What can we do as parents, friends, and relatives to make the season a little more sensory friendly?
1. Be predictable. I consider myself a spontaneous person. My husband, on the other hand, is a planner. Sudden change can be hard for sensory-sensitive children, so try to respect your child’s need to mentally prepare. Maintain your normal schedule when possible. When it isn’t possible, consider using a picture schedule. Our family loves an iPad app called Choiceworks by Bee Visual. It’s only $6.99 and you can customize it with your own pictures. Another way to prepare your child for transitions is referred to as the “First, then” technique. You tell your child what comes first, and what comes after. For example, tell your child, “First we go to the store, then we eat.” or “First two carrots, then a cookie.” This technique has been more successful for us when the “then” part is an incentive.
2. B.Y.O… Bring your own snacks, comfort items, or activities when visiting friends and family. Some children have very limited palettes and refuse certain textures. Plenty of kids are picky eaters, and most times, no one will even notice if you bring food for your child. Just to be safe, we sometimes treat our child prior to the event and eat somewhere we KNOW they’ll eat.
3. Don’t force it. Don’t feel pressured to get that picture perfect photo for your holiday cards. Don’t force the Santa photos. If it causes your family anxiety, don’t do it. If photo shoots stress your family, take your own photos. (Check out Amanda’s tips here.) One of my favorite holiday photos is of my entire family laughing hysterically while my son peered into the camera lens as if he was being documented in his natural habitat.
4. Be casual. Many children with sensory issues wear a “uniform.” They prefer certain fabrics, styles or colors. If you want your child to “dress up” for an event, try keeping the outfit as close to their “uniform” as possible. New fabrics and fancy materials might just make your child uncomfortable and put them on edge. For example, I desperately wanted my son to participate in trick-or-treating this year and wear a costume. My plan failed, and he ended up trick-or-treating in his regular clothes. But guess what? Nobody cared, and he had a blast.
5. BOLO. In the military, we use acronyms for EVERYTHING. One of my favorites is BOLO (Not to be confused with one of my *other* favorite acronyms BOGO – Buy One Get One) 😉 BOLO means “Be on the Lookout.” Try seeing the environment through the eyes of your child. Is there going to be a large crowd where you are going? What about flashing lights? Are there strong potpourri or perfume smells? Is there holiday music blaring in the background? Depending on your child, these things can overload his or her senses and ultimately lead to a meltdown. BOLO even in your own home. The shock of a rearranged living room to accommodate a Christmas Tree can be upsetting. Try making your child a part of the process, rather than surprising them with all the decorations.
For the hosts and hostesses:
Invite them. Parents of Autistic or sensory-sensitive children might hesitate to accept your invitation. You may have already invited them to a number of events, and they’ve declined. Please don’t be discouraged. They appreciate the invitation but are trying to do what’s best for their child. Invite them anyway. Their child might be feeling adventurous, and they could change their mind. Be flexible.
Don’t be offended. Please don’t hesitate to speak to a child that might not look at you or speak. Don’t force hugs, kisses, or eye contact. This can cause a lot of anxiety. Please don’t be offended if they have to leave early, and thank them for coming!
Have a safe haven. I’ve hosted a couple of gatherings in my home, and my son became overwhelmed by the noise and people. Fortunately, he snuck upstairs for quiet time. Inform parents ahead of time if there is an area in your home their child can escape to. For example, a coworker invited us to his home for a BBQ and let us know there was a train table in a quiet playroom upstairs. This gave my son the chance to get comfortable with his surroundings, and eventually make his way downstairs to join the party.
And last but not least:
Have FUN! There are traditional ideas of how we should be “enjoying” the holidays, but sometimes they can just stress us out. Don’t feel guilty skipping events; you can make memories anywhere! Happy Holidays!
How do you and your family make the holiday season more sensory friendly?