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Asperger’s, ASD, Sensory Processing & Family Gatherings/Holidays

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Holiday AAD 

 By Stephanie Holmes

Do you find that the holidays turn your ASD/SPD child into the Great Pumpkin, a giant turkey, or perhaps the Grinch That Stole Christmas? As we approach the last two months of the year, I feel it appropriate to address the holidays and family gatherings and their affects on a person with ASD or sensory processing issues. For most of us “neuro-typicals”, October through early January represents many times of gathering with family and friends. This means lots of family, hugs, decorating, baking, numerous special events and parties that consume our schedule. For those with ASD or Sensory Processing Disorder, these same holidays and gatherings can cause anxiety and major behavior and emotional meltdowns. Let me first explain Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

According to the SPD Foundation, a working definition of sensory processing is “a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.” We may take for granted the process in our brains that integrates our five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision. For those on the autism spectrum and those with SPD (1 out of 20), this process of sensory integration is challenged and the child may respond with aversive behavior or be over-stimulated. Everyday life is flooded with information that is received through the five senses. This overwhelming input can cause issues for a child in a school or church setting, or during normal daily routines at home. The holidays then add even more stress to their already over-loaded sensory circuits.

Let’s look quickly at some of the senses that may be over-taxed during the holidays:

Thanksgiving

At Thanksgiving, we think of large family gatherings. It is important to remember that those who are sensory aversive may not enjoy the hugs kisses, tickling and horse play that sometimes accompany this family gathering. It is hard to believe that a hug can be processed as pain and interpreted as discomfort for the sensory-aversive person, but it can. Of course, there is always that one relative that is offended by not getting a hug; so, it is important to understand that the person with SPD or ASD is not being disrespectful or unkind by refusing a hug or a kiss. He or she may experience this as painful or uncomfortable and is reacting in kind. Allowing a child to have space and shake hands or wave from across the room should be considered as alternatives to hugs and kisses, especially from distant relatives.

Another big part of the holiday is food. Those with SPD and ASD can react negatively to foods that are not normally served to them, so be sure to have some of your child’s favorites present at the holiday meal. This is not the time to experiment with new foods. In addition to the large gathering, new foods, and change of schedule, football games, parades and other loud sporting events add to the sensory overload of the holiday.

Christmas/Hanukkah

Both of these holidays involve lights. If your child complains about seeing light displays and flashing lights, this suggests he or she may have sensitivity to light. Often ceremonies and festivities are part of both holidays, which means exchanging gifts and exposure to new foods. During the month of December children have school or church plays, parties, and extra activities. Again, the holidays are not the time to challenge the child, but neither should the rest of the family avoid the activities altogether for the sake of one who does not enjoy the activities. Understand what things are stressful to your child and pick your battles wisely. Prepare boisterous family members who love to greet with hugs and kisses what form of greeting works best for you child.

New Year’s Eve

Noise makers, bright lights, big crowds, large parties, yelling as the clock strikes midnight—all of this sounds fun and exciting, unless your brain processes them differently. These can cause the sensory aversive child to recoil by possibly putting his hands over his ears or hiding. Prepare the child for the noises and crowds and pay attention to your child signaling discomfort. Have a back- up plan in case you need to leave the party. Be imaginative in your solutions. If loud noise is the issue, consider taking noise-cancelling earphones for your child during those events. If things get too bright, perhaps a pair of sunglasses would help. Yes, you might look and feel weird, but if everyone holds it together, it will be worth it.

As a mother of two children with sensory issues, I used to believe that I had the two most complaining children on the face of the planet— until I educated myself about their challenges. I was always trying to get them to have fun and enjoy various things about the holidays, without understanding that they were not experiencing the holiday’s sensory issues the same way as I.

There is balance in respecting the challenges of ASD/SPD, modifying events to a degree and embracing the traditional aspects of the holidays mentioned above. Take a mental inventory of the times the child seems to meltdown at the holiday. Were they using a sensory word or phrase? “That is too bright! “That is too loud!” “I hate that taste!” “That is itchy!” “That is scratchy!” “That is too hot or cold.”

An occupational therapist is a great resource to help with sensory processing issues, but you can educate yourself through books and websites and gain practical solutions to help your child or teen through the sensory overload that is approaching. Making some slight modifications will make the holidays more enjoyable for you and less stressful for your child with ASD or SPD.


Stephanie Holmes is an ordained minister and Credentialed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists. She specializes in Aspie-NT marriage therapy and has a national client base. Her book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith was released in September 2015.


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