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Autism Sensory Overload During Holidays: How Can You Prevent It?

December 10, 2021
By: Behavioral Innovations
Holiday sensory overload for autism, Holiday tips for autism

For children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or autism, the holidays can be stressful. There are a lot of new things that happen around the holidays that might make a child with autism feel overwhelmed or anxious or upset. Many of the traditional holiday things, such as twinkling lights, new decor, special scents around the house, music, and more people around at home or at holiday gatherings, can present a lot of sensory challenges for children with autism.

The five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch can be experienced differently for some children with autism. They can get more easily overwhelmed by sensory input as compared to other children. For instance, they might get overstimulated when there is more “stuff” in their environment than they are used to - such as lights and decorations and noise and people. It can all be overwhelming and can cause sensory overload.

Despite the possibility of sensory overload during the holidays, the holidays can be enjoyable for children with autism and their families. We’ll provide you with some recommendations for how you can help your child prevent and reduce any sensory overload that they might experience this holiday season.

Be Proactive: Consider Your Child’s Sensory Experiences

Consider what might trigger your child to get overwhelmed or to feel upset or act out in some way. By thinking about this ahead of time, you can help your child avoid those things that might trigger them or you can help make a plan to help your child manage those situations that might lead them to sensory overload.

Identify Your Child’s Triggers for Sensory Overload

Identifying your child’s triggers for sensory overload is part of being proactive and planning ahead to prevent sensory overload. It can be extremely helpful for your child if you intentionally take the time to identify the specific things that might trigger your child to experience sensory overload.

You know your child best. You can make a big difference in how your child experiences the holiday season if you take some time to think about their triggers.

Sensory-Seeker or Sensory-Avoider?

Consider whether your child is a sensory-seeker. If your child tends to seek out sensory input, they might be more hyposensitive to sensory input. This means that they want to have more sensory input, such as wanting to move around a lot or liking deep pressure, or seeking out certain types of sounds.

On the other hand, if your child is a sensory-avoider, they may be more hypersenstive to sensory input. This means that they want to escape or avoid certain sensory experiences, such as loud noises or certain textures. Maybe they really don’t like being touched by other people, so giving hugs to relatives or sitting on Santa’s lap might not be something you should expect them to do.

Consider Past Situations and Your Child’s Tendencies

If you can identify specific things that have triggered your child to get overwhelmed or have a meltdown or otherwise show that they are distressed or uncomfortable by thinking about past situations, you can help to address these triggers for this holiday season.

You might also use what you know about your child to identify some things that could become triggers for your child even if you haven’t seen your child be triggered by them before.

Some things to consider when it comes to planning ahead for potential sensory overload during the holidays include the following:

  • Is it possible that your child will feel stressed by lots of lights or by flashing lights?
  • Does your child get overwhelmed when there is a lot of noise around them?
  • Does your child have certain smells that really bother them?
  • Is your child a picky eater? Can you ensure that your child won’t be in a situation where he experiences anxiety related to food?
  • Does your child have certain types of clothing that he can’t stand? Does he find comfort in certain textures or by feeling certain things?

These are just some questions you can consider when trying to prevent your child from experiencing sensory overload during the holidays.

Discuss the Sensory Experiences Related to the Holidays

Talk with your child about the things he or she might see and experience during the holidays. If your child is able to engage in a conversation with you, allow them to talk about what they might be worried about, what might make them more comfortable, and discuss ways that your child can handle the sensory experiences related to the holidays.

Addressing Sensory Needs Related to Clothing

Be mindful of what types of clothing your child is most comfortable in and what type of clothing might make your child uncomfortable. For instance, if your child finds dressing up uncomfortable, then consider whether it is really necessary to have them be dressed up for a holiday event. Can they just wear their favorite outfit instead?

Plan for What Your Child Will Eat

Many children with autism have some challenges when it comes to eating or how to get through mealtimes. This is important to consider especially around the holidays since so many family traditions involve meal planning, cooking, eating, and socializing in a setting that involves having food together.

Think about the challenges your child has or might have around food. Does your child get upset if you put a certain type of food on their plate? Do they get overwhelmed if the food on their plate is touching? Do they get anxious when they are expected to eat in front of people they don’t know?

If your child prefers to eat only certain foods, can you pack snacks or a meal for holiday gatherings? This way your child can still eat at the event but they don’t have to feel the anxiety and stress of having to eat or being expected to eat what everyone else is eating.

Consider Sensory Needs Related to Visual Sensory Input

Can you keep the visual stimulation limited if this is something that might bother your child? If blinking lights make your child stressed, it might be helpful to just refrain from putting blinking lights up around your home. On the other hand, if your child enjoys blinking lights, of course it could be helpful to put some up for decoration to help your child enjoy the holiday season.

Address Sensory Overload Related to Noise

Does your child get overwhelmed and experience sensory overload when it's too noisy? If so, try to plan out how your child can access a quiet space during the holidays. Can you make sure other people don’t go into the child’s bedroom if there is a holiday event at your house? This will allow your child to know that his bedroom is off-limits to others and he will feel safer and more comfortable knowing that his personal space is not going to be used by others. Also, he can go into his room when he wants to get away from the noise and stimulation from the guests during the event.

Balancing Personal Space and Participating in the Event

If you think your child will spend the entire event in his room, you might consider setting an expectation for how long you’d like your child to be in the main living area of the house during the event. Another idea is to allow your child a certain amount of time in his room during the event, such as going into his room for no more than 15 minutes on three different occasions during the event.

How you approach allowing your child to spend time in his room or away from the guests during a holiday event is of course completely up to you and what is best for your child.

Also, consider how your child can have some personal space and quiet time when you are at holiday events outside your home. For example, is there a quiet space he can go to when you’re at grandma’s house?

Creating Structure to Holiday Events

Many children with autism feel more comfortable when there is structure and routine. Of course, some of these children will have difficulty adjusting to a routine at times especially when the routine hasn’t been well-established and it's something that is new for them. However, these children can greatly benefit when structure and routine are provided in a way that suits who the child is and in a way that addresses their needs and abilities.

To help reduce sensory overload during the holidays, you can use a child’s need for structure and routine. One example of how you can use this strategy is to have a basic idea of the series of events that will occur at the holiday event you and your child will be attending.

Let’s look at a potential situation where this could be applied. If your family tradition is to go to grandma’s house with extended family, you might help your child know what the general structure of the gathering will look like. You might even create a written or picture-based schedule that shows them the order of events.

If the order of events isn’t always consistent, you could have it be more of a checklist system, so the child could know that once all the items are completed, it’s time to go home. If you aren’t sure when you’ll be leaving the event, you can allow your child to have alone time or electronic time after the items are completed off the list.

Some things that might be helpful to add to the schedule or checklist include things like eating dinner, opening presents, playtime with other children, and so on. It’s helpful to be as specific as you can. However, be sure to only identify expectations that you fully intend to follow through on. For instance, you could have a goal for your child to hang out with other children for 30 minutes.

Addressing Your Child’s Sensory Overload During the Holidays

Of course, there isn’t just one way to help a child avoid the experience of sensory overload during the holidays. However, we have given you some things to consider to help your child regulate his sensory experiences more effectively during this holiday season. Be sure to consider your child’s needs and abilities and what is in their best interest as you plan for and go through this holiday season.

By being proactive in your effort to help prevent sensory overload for your child these holidays, you are helping to make the season much more enjoyable for your child and for you and your family, as well.