If you’re like many autistic folk, you probably have a few sensory response differences – or maybe more than a few. During the holidays, you may find that these are becoming more problematic. Sensory challenges that you used to be able to power through may be more pronounced during COVID. Stress can add a lot to what people are already feeling.
Here are a few holiday sensory challenges that some people face:
~ AUDITORY: The sound of people chewing, of silverware against china, unexpected squeals or shrieks from the kids’ table, dishes being stacked in the kitchen, teeth scraping against forks, multiple conversations all going on simultaneously against a backdrop of holiday music played on a repeat loop in the background.
~ VISUAL: The flicker of candlelight or of the television playing sports in the background, light reflecting off ornaments, or people wearing bright holiday colors, plaids, or sequins.
~ OLFACTORY: The overpowering smells of many different kinds of food taking over the house, hot oil from frying latkes, not to mention Christmas trees, long-burning Hanukah candles, pine and eucalyptus pot pourri, your cousin’s body odor, and your aunt’s perfume, all intermingling.
~GUSTATORY: So many different dishes, some unfamiliar or only seen once a year, too much food to fit on the plate without touching, and you’ll hurt someone’s feelings if you don’t try their special family recipe for Brussel Sprout Surprise.
~ TACTILE: You might be expected to wear something more dressy than your comfortable sweatpants, or to sit on straight-backed formal chairs with scratchy needlepoint seat covers.
Any one of these could be a problem, but many people are significantly bothered by more than one of them. Any other year you could probably gather your strength and put up with it, but in 2020 everything is just too much.
This year, it is strongly recommended that family gatherings should be cancelled, or at least shorter, preferably outdoors, and with no more than 6 people in the same “pod” or level of safety practices. If the right decision for you is to stay home and give the whole thing a miss, science is on your side. You don’t have to suffer just to make other people more comfortable; you have rights too. However, if you do decide to attend a small and safe family gathering, here are some things you can do to self-advocate about your sensory needs this holiday season:
1.) PLAN B: Ideally, your Plan A may be to attend the holiday festivities and just put up with the sensory overload that you know is coming. Even with smaller groups of socially safe family members, you may still struggle with sensory overload. Think ahead and have a Plan B, somewhere else you can go to be alone for a while. You may need to take your plate and eat alone in a dimly lit room. When you are able, you can decide to return to the group, but respect your own needs.
2.) COMMUNICATE: Find a way to let your hosts and family know that you might need to find a quiet place, or whatever Plan B is right for you. You can make an announcement if you don’t mind that kind of attention, or write a note or email in advance. You might even share this post with your family, and highlight which things are true for you.
3.) EXIT STRATEGY: Even if you have and implement a Plan B, you may find yourself unable to stay for the entire celebration. This can be especially true if your family includes those who disagree politically and who may want to discuss stressful issues. If you drove yourself there, it’s easy to slip away. If not, ask your immediate family if anyone could help you out if you need to make an early exit. You can notify your hosts as you arrive that you may need to bow out before the pumpkin pie, and thank them for their hospitality in advance. Then slip away with the least possible fanfare. If you are worried about hurting anyone’s feelings, in a few days you can send a note or email saying how nice it was to see everyone. You don’t need to apologize for taking care of yourself, but sending a thank you note is a gracious gesture and act of kindness.
Even though the holidays are all about family, you are also part the family, and you deserve kindness and consideration. Self-advocate: communicate your needs, and have a plan and a backup plan with an exit strategy.
My wish for you is that you take care of yourself, self-advocate for your sensory needs, and have a holiday that works for you.