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holidays

Have a happy, inclusive holiday season

Holiday gatherings, for me, are filled with so many things that I love: a chance to be close to people I don’t often get to see, lovely decorations like bright twinkling lights, festive music, delicious and special foods, and a divergence from the usual routine of work and school.  However for my son, that very same list translates to a barrage of sensory and structural chaos that can be overwhelming: the unfamiliar people vying for hugs, the visually distracting lights and decorations, the loud (to his ears) music, the strange foods, and the variance from the comfort and perceived safety of his established daily routine.  This can be hard for family and friends to understand, especially when these aspects of the holidays can seem so essential to the season.  It can be a difficult gap between experiences to try and reconcile as a parent or person with autism or other sensory processing issues.  We want to be a part of these special occasions, but we also want to mitigate potential melt downs resulting from sensory overload, and the physical and emotional fall-out associated with them.  Often this results in opting out of many meaningful celebrations, but it shouldn’t–and doesn’t– have to be that way.
After many years of spectacular wipe-outs (and wins, too!), here is my short list of holiday coping strategies that I have found useful for my family:
Know your exits

It may seem counterintuitive to start out a list about participation with an escape plan, but this has always been at the core of my family’s own success in holiday festivities.  Whether it is a lighting ceremony, dinner, performance, party, or even a photo shoot, we make sure that we plan our exits in advance.  We talk out scenarios like needing to duck out of an event early (where are the least disruptive exits?), coping with impending melt-downs (where is a quiet space we can go?), and reconvening if we get split up (is there a place nearby to hang out?).

Another reason to know your exits is for the safety of containment: if you have a child who is skilled in the art of elopement, then knowing the potential escape points can help you troubleshoot in advance.  My son has fled the scene of events a few times when things got overwhelming.  We were glad that we knew where he could and would go, so he was not lost in an unfamiliar place.

Communicate in advance

To the extent possible, include your hosts and relevant attendees in on your situation.  Reactions of course vary, but often I have found disclosure met with compassion.  Gratitude and explanation can go a long way toward making a space more inclusive. For example, “We are so grateful for the invitation to great-aunt Tilly’s dinner party, and here are just a few things that would really help Joe feel comfortable”.

Enjoy specialized events

When my son was very young and very squirrely, I had the great luck of finding a holiday photo opportunity that met him where he was at, rather than having him fit into a situation that really wouldn’t work.  One example of an inclusive adaptation to tradition is Caring Santa, an event that allows appointments to be made in advance, making it easier for families to prepare for, as well as an opportunity to participate among families who are going through similar experiences.

Other events to enjoy during the holidays and year-round include special opening times for museums such as Seattle’s Pacific Science Center and Olympia’s Children’s Museum,  sensory-friendly movies, and even just going to the park.

Be kind to yourself

Holidays can be fun but they can also be stressful.  Be as kind and empathetic to yourself as you are to those you love.  It can be hard not to want to live up to a social ideal or norm of what the perfect holiday experience should be.  Employ your skills of calm breathing, and be prepared to change things around if it feels like a situation just won’t work.  We have tried a lot of different events in my family, with a lot of different results.  The successful ones we incorporate into our holiday routine, and the others we let go – and perhaps try again another time.

Families are like snowflakes

The snowflake might be an over-used analogy, but I do believe that it reflects the unique and individual qualities – within and among – families.  Together families share many commonalities of cultural tradition, but individually we can and should enjoy and express those traditions in the ways that fit our families best.  Pickles, olives, and macaroni and cheese may not seem like a joyous holiday meal to some, but to my son it brings unwavering delight.  We may not sit through an entire production of the Nutcracker ballet, but we enthusiastically and meticulously line up our collection of small nutcracker statue over and over again throughout the season…and sometimes longer.  Participating in these cultural touchstones brings me and my family joy, and sharing our experiences with others helps promote a wider understanding of the importance of inclusion.

Enjoy your holidays!

Tags: Autism   Child Development   families   holiday activities   holidays   inclusive   special needs kids   

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