Stephanie C. Holmes, Ed.D., BCCC, Certified Autism Specialist
Used with Permission and Previously Published in Autism/Asperger’s Digest and AACC Blogsite
We have all heard the expression “the sights and sounds of Christmas.” When I think of the Christmas season, I think about love, laughter, hugs, family gatherings, buying gifts, decorating, food, Christmas lights, and all the sights and sounds and aromas of Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, of course, Christmas is about the birth of our Savior, and He is the “Reason for the Season,” but there are many components to the Christmas season that are very, very sensory-related. This can be problematic for your client, spouse or your child who is on the autism spectrum or has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or ADHD.
Sensory Aversive or Sensory Seeking?
Sensory issues are complex, and this simple definition does not do the issue justice, but sensory stimuli enter through our five senses, and, for those who have sensory processing issues, their brains do not process the information the same way the neurotypical brain does. I call this the problem of “too.” Sensory issues are real to ASD/SPD persons—they are not just making it up to be difficult.
As my daughter would commonly say, that is “too loud,” or “too bright,” or “too scratchy,” or “too spicy,” or “too” something. Sensory issues have two broad categories with many subcategories, but a person diagnosed with a sensory issue can be sensory aversive or sensory seeking. The aversive person is the person that will tend to use the word “too.” That new sweater grandma gave me is “too itchy” or “too lacy” or “too red,” or that new hair bow hurts my head, or that food is “too spicy.”
As a parent, until I understood the complexities of sensory issues I thought, Man she complains about everything! She has to be one of the most ungrateful children on the planet. There is a sensory seeking side, as well. The sensory seeker loves to feel things, touch it all, see the bright lights and is enticed by sensory overload, but this overload then is followed by hyperactivity or a sensory crash. So, one child who is aversive may hate going to see the Christmas lights, talking to Santa, or being in a mall with throngs of people, while the sensory seeking child gets completely energized and hyperactive in the same situation.
Dan’s sensory issues are quite different. He is neither averse nor seeking, but under-regulated and what seems to be most overwhelming is too many events or social demands as his birthday and our anniversary are in December as well as Christmas and holiday parties. Sometimes we must choose, for this year for what is going on what is the best use of our time and what would feel celebratory and not simply obligatory.
It’s All About the Brain
Two of the brain-based issues at work here are the corpus callosum and the amygdala. In the ASD brain, the amygdala is 15 to 20 percent larger than average. In simple terms, this part of the brain sizes up what is a threat and is involved in “fight or flight.” Part of the issue with sensory integration is that the amygdala sizes up many sensory things as a threat, which causes the person to go into a fight or flight. To the average onlooker, the person appears to be having a tantrum or at best is a “fussy child” or “avoidant or difficult spouse.”
The corpus callosum is smaller in the ASD brain. A 2006 TIME magazine article reports, “The ASD corpus callosum works more like an improv jam session, instead of a beautiful orchestra.” So, sensations are not always accurately communicated across the brain hemispheres. One of best the ways to help ASD/SPD clients is by teaching them to regulate sensory issues. When a child with sensory issues is over-stimulated, there will be meltdowns, crankiness, irritability, anxiety, or ADHD-type behaviors. This time of year, can really seem to turn your ASD/SPD client, spouse or child, into the Grinch! What do you do? Do you abandon events and hosting all together? No, but you want a different approach. Your neurologically different child or spouse may never love, appreciate, or desire the holidays as much as you do. That is okay! How do you keep the focus on Jesus, family and have a great Christmas or Advent Season?
Easy Preventative Measures
I like to encourage people to be preventative and creative. First, assess what things tend to trigger the child or spouse. Work with the family to help them take some of the following actions. If the lights are too bright at the Christmas light show, the parents can let their child take some shades. If the sounds are an issue, you can take some earmuffs and a device that plays music the child or spouse likes. Parents can talk to relatives ahead of time about gifts for the child to avoid embarrassing moments. Parents can explain the sensory issues and give some appropriate gift ideas. It is also important to practice with the child what is the appropriate thing to say or do if offered a food or gift they do not like.
If hugs are an issue and the parents know that Aunt Helen loves those hugs and kisses, talk with the child about what they might feel is an OK greeting—one hug, an air hug, a handshake, etc. Encourage the parents to explain to the touchy-feely aunt that this is the way she can express a greeting and that squeezy hugs or a dozen kisses are going to cause an issue.
One of the best resources for an ASD/SPD child is a great Occupational Therapist (OT). OTs are experts in helping you assess the exact sensory issues and how to better regulate them. Sensory issues and how to manage them can be a huge key to the child’s success.
If you are looking for further educational resources, take a look at the free video at aspergerexperts2.com, which was created by two young men with Asperger’s. From their own experience, they explain the number one thing we can do to help those on the spectrum. Hint? Help them regulate those sensory issues! After Christmas, we head into New Year’s Parties and then Valentines. There is always a sensory overload holiday right around every corner, but as a Christian counselor, you can make a difference.
Remember, for those on the spectrum or ADHD, changes in routine, new foods, new schedules, and all the changes that come with the season can be trigger points. Let’s get creative and collaborative to problem solve them. Start talking about it now if you aren’t already.
Focus on the Larger Goal
We want to create positive memories around the holidays for our families. We need to keep that goal in mind. We need to find the line of not pushing or exasperating your spouse or child yet not capitulating or completely making the holiday autism/sensory/ADHD focused. There is a balance of a gentle loving push and accommodating differences and looking at the holiday events and possibly making them shorter or less intense. This may be quality over quantity in time, events, hosting events. Being proactive and discussing any changes and plans together as a couple and preparing your kids for changes in routines and foods and overwhelming social events is very important to have some shalom and joy around the holiday season. How do you build joy, hesed (attachment) and group identity (family identity) around the holidays and keep some peace? It can be done with intentionality, curiosity, and collaboration!
This blog/article is one of many blogs located in our new book, Embracing the Autism Spectrum found at www.christianneurodiversefamilies.com.
Comment below if you have some tips and tricks for other neurodiverse families and the holidays!