The holidays are a time of great joy, laughter, learning experiences, sensory awakenings, and fabulous opportunities. Unfortunately, maintaining a holiday atmosphere full of merriment and cheer is not possible 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 when candy, lights, sounds, new foods, family, and utter chaos can easily over stimulate your ASD child if you aren’t paying attention. Keeping up with your child’s sensory needs may seem difficult to do in the middle of holiday mayhem but it is the most important thing you can do to make the holiday season in your family more peaceful.
Sensory overload is very common during the holidays, for parents as well as children. It’s a time of 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 more difficult to maintain the status quo.
Here are a few strategies and ideas to help the whole family get through this season with lots of pictures 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 child how 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.
Dressing 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 – Many children benefit from wearing earplugs or headphones during big family gatherings or at busy stores. They won’t block out all the noise but will dull the noise enough to help. If you choose to use noise cancelling headphones just remember that you will have to work harder at trying to get their attention.
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 everyone 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, “His body needs some quiet time” and bring him to the previously identified place of respite so he can relax and regroup. Whether you stay with him or not, you or he will know when it is time to rejoin the group.
For the child with sensitive tastes or delicate tummies:
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 as well as anyone and most of these sensitivities are well known to you but as children develop, 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.
Connie Hammer, MSW, parent educator, consultant and coach, guides parents of young children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to uncover abilities and change possibilities. Visit her website http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com/ to get your FREE resources – a parenting e-course, Parenting a Child with Autism – 3 Secrets to Thrive and a weekly parenting tip newsletter, The Spectrum.
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