This time of year is filled with an abundance of sensory stimuli unique to the holidays. The lights are brighter, the scents are richer, the food is special, and every day it seems like there is something else to do. For those of us with sensory processing challenges, it can easily become too much. Here are some tips from both a parent’s and autistic adult’s perspective to make this holiday season a little more sensory-friendly.
Lisa Watson is a Regional Coordinator with AutismBC and a parent of an autistic child. Jake Anthony is an adult on the autism spectrum.
Plan for Success
Lisa: Balancing extended family and social expectations with your family’s needs can be very tricky. There are so many traditions and demands around the holidays but, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what your priorities are. This could mean picking and choosing which events to attend, how long to stay, or limiting the number of guests to your home.
Adapt old traditions to be more sensory-friendly and make new traditions entirely your own. Find community events with sensory accommodations or aim to attend at less busy times. Remember, among all the holiday stress it’s okay to stick to the things that work best for your family.
Jake: The hectic, unpredictable nature of the holiday season makes it difficult for autistic people like me to know what to expect, as well as how to adjust to changes in routine, as well as certain rituals and traditions not going as planned. One thing that helps me cope with anxiety during the holidays is when people give me a heads-up about a possible schedule change. This allows me to process the change and adjust my expectations without getting overly upset.
Lisa: It’s not easy to ask for help, but it is critical — especially when you aren’t in your own home. Most people are happy to help, but first, they need to know what you need to make the day go more smoothly.
If you’re comfortable, ask ahead to use a host’s spare room as a sensory break. Creating a safe place for downtime that is quiet and sensory-friendly can make a world of difference. If there isn’t room, a walk, some time to play outside, or a break in the car can help your child decompress.
Other accommodations you could request include a separate place to eat away from the sensory-rich holiday table, a shorter visit, or just the understanding that your child may need to use electronics, read quietly, not participate in certain activities, or generally be less social.
Jake: As an autistic person, when I attend a holiday party or event, I either ask the host or take the time to look for a quiet space where I can take a break if I start to feel overwhelmed. This way, I can enjoy myself, knowing that if I need to step out to deal with sensory overload or anxiety, I have a plan. Not all hosts know that they have an autistic person coming to their party or event, so I find it best not to assume that person knows I am neurodivergent when I show up.
Lisa: The holidays may be easier on your child if they know what to expect. Practice Christmas Day or other important events; this could be as big or as small as you want. You could trial the eating, the presents and even the clothes you plan on wearing if you think this will help your child cope on the big day. Trying holiday foods in advance helps your child get accustomed to the new smells, sights, and tastes.
Reminiscing about past holidays can also be helpful. Remind your child what special things happen outside their routine this time of year and discuss what will happen this holiday season. Share pictures and videos of years prior for a visual aid.
Jake: While reminiscing about past holiday rituals can be helpful, I’ve found that people encouraging me to try new rituals helps me to become more flexible as an autistic person. This way I can enjoy what’s familiar, while also discovering some new traditions.
Remember the Basics
Lisa: In all this, remember the things that help your child process sensory input on an average day and stick to your normal routines where you can. When you can’t, bring along sensory toys and other items that help your child in everyday life and practice the skills already in your toolbox.
These simple questions all relate to the sensory nervous system. Have you ever been “hangry?” What about cranky when you didn’t get enough sleep? In those situations, we become less able to deal with small annoyances. Tending to these internal needs frees up some “bandwidth” to process external sensory input. For people with sensory sensitivities, this can be crucial to managing sensory overload.
Jake: It’s important to remember while asking these questions to figure out why an autistic person is experiencing sensory overload, that if they can’t communicate it at that moment, make sure you respect that. For me, if I’m overwhelmed and am having a hard time managing my emotions, having someone trying to engage me in conversation at that point just makes it worse. I know that most people are well-meaning, as well as eager to help and understand the situation. But if someone isn’t able and willing to express their feelings or needs in that moment, it’s best to wait for a calmer moment.
Check out some resources below for other ways to make this holiday season a little less stressful. Happy holidays!