You’ve probably all had the experience of your child having a full-blown melt-down, usually at the worst possible time. Nobody likes it, least of all your child. It can be terrifying to feel out of control. The holidays are usually rich with new experiences, high expectations, tons of social situations, and a sensory nightmare. Sensory overload can hit at any time, and hit hard, but we can be ready for it.
Sensory responses can be overwhelming for our kids. We love the smells of the holidays, and they may be able to appreciate each one separately, but the combination of the turkey, the pies, the scented candles, the Christmas tree, and grandma’s perfume can work together to create aromatic chaos.
The sounds of the holidays can also be overstimulating, especially when they are all coming in simultaneously: carols playing in the background, a holiday special on TV, cousins playing and shouting, adults laughing or arguing, dogs barking, latkes sizzling in oil, the oven timer going off, doorbells and sleigh bells and ringtones competing – the combination can be just too much.
You know it is coming, and there’s no way to stop the sensory nightmare that is the holiday season. But since you know about it, you can also plan for it and help your child make it through without melting down. What do you do? Find or create a hideout for your child.
It could be a cardboard box, a walk-in closet, the space under a desk or table or behind a couch or bed in a seldom-used back room, a fort of couch cushions or blankets – any place your child can retreat when the holidays are getting to be too stimulating.
In your own home this is easier. You can create a safe space and set it up with books, a book light, stuffed animal, pillows, headphones and soothing music, a sensory toy box – whatever helps. Tell the siblings this is off limits, and to leave their autistic sibling alone if they retreat there. (If they want to set up their own safe spaces in their rooms so they don’t feel left out, why not?)
It is more challenging, but not impossible, when you’re going to someone else’s home for the holidays. Call first to find out if there is a spare bedroom or other private place where he won’t be in the way, and ask if you can set up a safe space for your child there. Then pack up the familiar things from the home hideout and bring them with you. As soon as you arrive, let your child help you set up the space, and tell them they can come here to calm down or chill out whenever they want. (This is NOT a time-out place to be sent as punishment, but a self-selected safe house.) Make sure the cousins and other guests know not to disturb them in their retreat.
Whether your child spends the entire holiday holed up in the hideout, or feels comfortable mixing with the crowd with the knowledge that there is a retreat available when needed, having it can add to your ability to relax and enjoy the festivities.
Happy holidays, everyone, and enjoy your safe hideouts!