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Tis the Season for Sensory Overload

*The stories in these posts are a compilation of discussions that I have had with parents throughout the years.


I love Christmas! I love to decorate, probably a little too early for my neighbors, I love buying gifts for people, especially when I can buy something that is personal that I know they will enjoy. I love the gatherings and the spirit – even the music. I come from a very large family and Christmas is always a big event for us. Lots of food, cookies, laughter, gifts, and chaos. It is that very chaos of the holiday season that I love so much that can be overwhelming for a child (or adult) on the spectrum.


I struggled for a long time with how to incorporate and preserve that atmosphere of the season that I loved so much, while still being mindful that I had a child who could end up with sensory overload. With the inevitable disappointment, hers, not mine because there were always some very specific expectations of what she would receive, and if those very precise expectations were not met, there were tears. After the tears, there would be remorse, which was harder for me to see, she felt bad that she felt bad. Top this off with worry about how the family and friends will react to the behaviors and you’re left with a not so happy holiday. This was enough to make me want to quit my favorite time of year. But I was determined to make traditions for my family, so they would have fond memories like I do.


Let me start by saying that you do not have to continue any holiday traditions that leave you overwhelmed, tired, or broke. This is your family, your children, if things need to change so that you can continue to have a joyous time, change them – make new traditions.

Start with allowing them to have as much control and choice as you can. Do they really need to wear the red sweater, or will their favorite, most comfortable blue shirt do? If they can’t handle sitting for 300 pictures, don’t make them. Can you role play ahead of time, for example, what to say and do if she receives a gift that might not be her favorite or talk about how the gifts will be opened – does Grandpa hand them out one at a time or is it a mad rush? Don’t forget this happens once a year, so he may not remember how things are done every year. Don’t push him to stay at the table longer than necessary regardless of whether Uncle Jim gets irritated or not, don’t make her eat food that she don’t want to eat (even if it is her favorite) – these are ways of allowing them to feel a little bit of control during an overwhelming time, so try not to take that away.


Because I come from a large family, who were very generous with their gift giving, I actually purchased very little for my children and always included some low-tech gifts like a board game and a book. However, I would help him make a list. Once that list was complete, I would talk about it and ask what things on the list ranked at the top (to try and avoid that disappointment). I would also take that time to discuss how he may not get everything on the list and even more important, that this time of year was also about giving to others and spending time with those people that you care about.


If you are able, spread out the opening of all the gifts – even before the day of celebration. We would get boxes in the mail from relatives, I would let my kids open one gift a day starting a week before the big day. They would get to enjoy that ONE gift each day without the commotion. But what do you do if you do not receive the gifts early, if your child is expected to open the pile of gifts in one setting? Amidst all the chaos? Because Grandma and Aunt Sarah want to see him open what they purchased for him. Watch for her cues, notice if she is headed for a meltdown and then allow her to take a break, Aunt Sarah can wait – she is an adult after all. Find a quiet place and a favorite activity (or non-activity) until she is ready to head back in. Once the gifts are opened allow her to choose two to unbox and play with and stash the rest away to take home for another day.


Make sure there are also movement breaks during the day. Have them deliver candy canes, cards or cookies to the neighbors, this not only is a nice thing to do and demonstrates the spirit of giving and generosity, but it gets them outside and expending some of that pent-up energy.


Lastly, do not believe all the magical holiday moments you see on Facebook, you have no idea what was going on before and after that photo – or even on the opposite side of the camera. Things may not be picture perfect, but do they really need to be? Make your own traditions that fit your family and the needs of your child, so that you can enjoy the time and make happy memories.


Happy Holidays!


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