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  • Autism and the Holidays: Sensory Overload

  • The hustle and bustle of the holidays can be especially stressful for children who have autism.

    Autism and the HolidaysFrom last-minute shopping trips to holiday parties and family gatherings, the holiday season is often a stressful time for parents.  But for children with autism spectrum disorder who rely on structure and routine, the hustle and bustle of the holidays can be extremely unsettling, according to experts from Bradley Hospital.

    This is particularly true for children who also have sensory processing issues and may be overwhelmed by the overabundance of lights, sights, sounds and smells during the holidays. This distress can often impact the entire family.

    Maintaining the current structure and routine for your child may not always be possible during the holidays, but there are ways to help reduce your child's anxiety while increasing your family's enjoyment of the holiday season, say experts from the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Bradley Hospital.

    The key to preparing for the inevitable changes that come with the holidays is to provide your child with early cues of what will be taking place. For some, this might require depicting with words or pictures exactly what will and will not occur at each event.

    The following tips can make the holidays more fun for everyone involved:

    • Visiting
      If you will be visiting relatives or friends, let the child know in advance where you are going, who will be there when you arrive, what you will do when you are there and the time you plan to arrive and leave. Follow the same protocol if relatives or friends will be visiting your home. Parents may also want to ensure that a quiet area has been identified where the child with autism can go and relax if the activities become too overwhelming.
       
    • Holiday shopping
      Holiday shopping with a child who has autism spectrum disorder may present its own set of challenges, especially when the stores are crowded and noisy. Make a list that identifies the items you're shopping for and do not roam the stores trying to decide what to buy. Keeping the trip short and being organized will help minimize the potential for the child to become overwhelmed and have a "meltdown" in the middle of a store.
       
    • Decorations
      Holiday decorations inside the house--including bright and blinking lights, wreaths, trees, candles and stacks of presents --could be areas of concern.  Parents know best what their child with autism enjoys and at what point things may become overwhelming. However, parents should not expect that their child has a higher tolerance simply because it's the holiday season. 
       
    • Preparing siblings
      Since the holidays are a time for the whole family to enjoy, it's important to make siblings aware of how stressful this season can be for their brother or sister with autism. Before the holiday season begins, take the time to remind children of their sibling's sensory issues, communication difficulties, low frustration tolerance and likes and dislikes. Parents can then share the family's strategy for avoiding potential issues and discuss what they will do if their best efforts are unsuccessful.

    We often put pressure on ourselves to make the holidays perfect, which is unrealistic. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that the holidays are a time to cherish one another and the joy of being together. Whether it's scaling back or starting new traditions, celebrate in a way that makes the most sense for your family and is something that you, your child and the entire family will all enjoy.

    For more information about Bradley Hospital's Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, please visit: http://www.lifespan.org/bradley/services/ddp/default.htm