The other day I was shopping inside a craft store. For the most part it was peaceful and then a child started screaming and begging for candy. I overheard his mother say more than once, “Not now, later.” Now that my granddaughter has been officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I don’t react when I hear a child screaming. The child was maybe three years old. I felt that maybe he had some sensory issues with all the lights, sounds, and smells coming from the store; that he was becoming frustrated and disturbed. Maybe his mother asked him to be quiet and she would give him some candy or maybe he asked for candy and she said okay but meant later. Either way, he was not happy and the shopping experience for both was not good.
It is that time of the year when the holiday season consumes our thoughts and minds and explodes around us. If your child has sensory issues, this can be a very difficult and overstimulating few months for him or her. Nobody wants a meltdown. You know your child best, but there are precautions you can take to make your holiday a good experience for all.
The Chattanooga Autism Center has come up with Tips for a Sensory Friendly Holiday. The first is to take in mind the number of things lit up in your house. Avoid multi-colored lights on your Christmas tree and keep them from blinking. Different aspects of light can be a sensory problem for many kids with autism. Some suggest using dimmer switches on your tree lights. Keep your lights simple.
Outings can be intense. If shopping, use the tips suggested by preparing your child for the experience. Plan where you are going, what you are shopping for and don’t make the trip too long. If your child is old enough, let him help you shop. If he is young, bring snacks, books, or something to keep him occupied while you shop. Know your child’s limits and signs of frustration or near meltdown. Then remember to use your skills you have learned to redirect your child in the way he understands. Thankfully, there are more people these days who understand and are not judging you or your child. Don’t let the possibility of a meltdown stop you or your child from the fun of shopping. Remember the spirit of the season and enjoy this opportunity with your child.
Keep decorations limited and secure. If you have fragile or sentimental ornaments that may break, consider not hanging them on the tree but in a safe place high above your child’s reach. I hung a garland along the top curtain rod in three rooms and hung “special” ornaments on the garland. It gave each room a festive touch and since I had to climb a step ladder to hang the ornaments, I was secure that none of my grandchildren could reach them. Also, consider having your child make her own special ornaments using paper, cloth, or unbreakable materials; then let her hang them on the tree or make a felt tree and hang it on the wall. You don’t have to give up your Christmas tree; you can be creative in decorating it.
Factoring in sensory breaks helps keep things moving smoothly. As the tip says, it’s okay if your child would rather spend time in his safe place. Letting him come and go only gives him a sense of ownership to the gathering but allows him time to center himself and come back to the party with a sense of joy and appreciation.
Finally, to help minimize the risk of a meltdown and your child not eating, include at least one food at the meal that your child will eat. And remember to let him eat where he wants to eat, if necessary. There is nothing wrong with encouraging him to try new foods or sit with the family. However it never hurts to be proactive in avoiding problems before they happen.
Everyone, including children who are sensitive to various sensory inputs can enjoy the Christmas festivities. Save the tip sheet provided by the Chattanooga Autism Center and share it with your family and friends, your Facebook page or on Instagram. Remember to do your best to maintain your current structure and routines; keep your schedules as consistent as possible; listen to your child; get a break when you can; remember your child is a gift to the world; celebrate that gift and enjoy this wonderful time of the year.