Holiday traditions for the sensory sensitive can mean some small changes to your usual holidays. ‘Tis the season to be….overwhelmed. While many people look forward to celebrating the winter holidays, some people may dread them, especially those who are sensory sensitive, including those with autism, sensory integration disorder, or other neurodiversities and sensory issues. Yet, it’s supposed to be the happiest season of all. So how can we make it more manageable for our neurodiverse children and family members? With a bit of planning and empathy, you can create new holiday traditions for your neurodiverse child. They might even have fun!
Common Sensory Issue Related Problems
The traditions you love and grew up with might be too much for people who are sensory sensitive. For instance, some people with seizure disorders may suffer a seizure if exposed to rapidly twinkling lights.
You can minimize this risk for them by having the lights on your Christmas tree or holiday display set not to blink. You can ask this of relatives you will visit, but ultimately, it is their house and their decorations. They can refuse your request. You only have control of your own. Since this is a health and safety issue, you might have to skip that gathering.
The holiday season brings all kinds of disruptions to their routines, which can cause anxiety, stress, and even meltdowns. There are so many new people at holiday gatherings. Likely, you will see people over the holidays that you may only see once or twice each year. These gatherings can be overwhelming for the neurodiverse (honestly, it can be overwhelming for some neurotypicals!). Lastly, there are so many different activities at this time of year – cookie swaps, holiday parties, family dinners, shopping for many gifts at one time, church services, etc. I’m not neurodiverse, and I’m exhausted just thinking about all of this! So, how do we solve this? Is there a way to make this easier?
Focus on Favorite Holiday Traditions
How many events do you think your child can handle? Are the ones you’re choosing far apart or close together on the calendar? If your child can tell you which events they enjoy and which ones they do not, let them have some input. If you can space the events out over the month, that would be ideal. This way, they can have some downtime to recover from the first event before moving on to the next one. You probably know some of the signs you typically see from your child getting overwhelmed. They might withdraw, fidget, stim more than usual, or start to lash out at others.
If you see those signs, either take that as your cue to go home before your child has a full-blown meltdown or provide them with a quiet place they can go to escape for a little while. If you want to go to all the parties and attend all the events, see if you can find a sitter or set up some respite time.
Your local DD board is one place that can help you find respite opportunities. If you allow your neurodiverse children to sit out some events, they might enjoy the ones they choose to attend.
Stick to the Routine for your Child
It is challenging to stick to a regular schedule during the holidays. Most likely, some events may push bedtimes past what they usually are. For example, the school might be on break, and mealtimes might differ from usual. Unfortunately, there are going to be cases where this is not avoidable.
However, on the days you can stick to your regular schedule, do stick to that schedule. My Autistic sons thrive on routine. He is prone to meltdowns when his regular plans and activities can’t be followed, and the other does much better with knowing “what comes next.” He constantly asks me every morning how many days there are until Christmas. I tell him, and we move on with our day. Then, closer to Christmas, he wants to go over where we are going, who else will be there, and how long we stay. This is fine.
I answer his questions and ease his anxiety. Remember to allow your child downtime with a preferred activity or a quiet place to destress.
Dealing with Family
If you host the holidays, there may be many people in your home that your child doesn’t see regularly. This may upset them or cause anxiety. Suppose you are going over to a relative’s house for the holidays. In that case, they will have unfamiliar people to deal with on top of an unfamiliar environment. It might be a good idea to prepare them for this ahead of time. I made scrapbooks or photo albums with pictures of relatives who may be seen only during the holidays.
Maybe you might want to make flashcards of the relatives – gear it to what might engage your child’s attention and make it fun. As you go through the photos, you can tell your child a bit about the relative so they can get an idea of what this person is like. Showing them pictures of environments they are not used to can help ease their anxiety once they are gathering. Again, allow your child space to destress whenever possible. Also, let your child have some autonomy. Do not make them hug or kiss relatives if they aren’t comfortable with that. Maybe it’s a family tradition to do that when saying hello or goodbye, but your child should not be forced to partake in it.
Saying No to Activities
Contrary to years of practicing your family traditions, you may think you don’t have the choice to skip any of them. After all, someone may feel hurt if you’re not there. Well…I’m going to be honest with you – that might happen. Someone might feel hurt. But the world will still go on turning if you skip Aunt Martha’s Annual Cookie Swap. If you feel strongly about it, maybe you and your spouse can divide and conquer – one of you goes to the event, and the other stays home with your child.
Or, you can arrange for a sitter or respite care and go yourself. But if you need to say no to an event, allow yourself to do that. You can explain to relatives and friends that your neurodiverse child gets easily overwhelmed and can’t attend every holiday gathering. You can try to tell them that it is for the good of your child and your family that you focus on 2 or 3 events during the holidays.
They may understand…they may not. You have no control over that. But put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment. Think about what this is like for them. You may be surprised about how difficult it is for them to do all the things we are “supposed to” find fun. So go easy on them and yourself and say no to some activities. You honestly don’t have to say yes to everything you used to do.