How Autism Grew my Faith

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Asperger’s, Sensory Processing and The Holidays

Do you find that the holidays turn your ASD/SPD child into the Great Pumpkin, a giant turkey, or perhaps the Grinch that Stole Christmas? As we approach the last two months of the year, I feel it appropriate to address the holidays and family gatherings and their effects on a person with ASD or sensory processing issues. For most of us “neuro-typicals”, October through early January represents a time of gathering time with the ones we love.  It is full of family, hugs, decorating, baking, and numerous events and parties that consume our schedule. For those with ASD or Sensory Processing Disorder, these same holidays and gatherings can cause anxiety and major behavior and emotional meltdowns.  Let me first define Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).


According to the SPD Foundation, a working definition of sensory processing  is “a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.”  We may take for granted the process involved in our brains to integrate our five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision. For those on the autism spectrum (1 out of 88) and those with SPD (1 out of 20), this process of sensory integration is challenged and the child may respond with aversive behavior or be over-stimulated.  Every day life is flooded with information that is received through the five senses which can cause issues for a student in a school or church setting or just the normal daily routines at home, but the holidays add much more stress to their already over-loaded sensory circuits.


Let’s look quickly at some of the senses that may be over-taxed during the holidays:


Halloween or Fall Festival: Costumes (too itchy, scratchy, tight, heavy, fluffy etc), games and activities at the event (the noise, colored lights, foods), trick or treating (speaking to strangers or asking for candy, pickiness with what they like to eat- too sweet, too sour, too sticky, too hard, too chewy).  Some neighborhoods go all out with house decorating and flashing lights or monster motifs on the front lawn. Some homes greet the trick-or-treaters with loud noises or boisterous voices.  For those who respond aversively, these festivities, that are intended to be fun, can be taxing and stressful resulting in severe anxiety.  For those who get over-stimulated, the effect of too much fun and excitement can cause the same emotional meltdown as the aversive child when the sensory process is not adapting or is challenged by the sensory data.


Thanksgiving: We think of large family gatherings and various foods. It is important to remember that those who are sensory aversive may not enjoy hugs and kisses and tickling and horse play that sometimes accompany this family gathering. It is hard to believe that a hug can be processed as pain and uncomfortable for the aversive person, but it can. There is always that one relative that is offended by not getting a hug. It is important to understand the person with SPD or ASD is not being disrespectful or unkind by refusing a hug or a kiss, but may experience this as painful or uncomfortable and the brain is reacting as if the hug is harmful. Allowing a child to have space and shake hands or wave from across the room should be considered as alternatives to hugs and kisses especially from distant relatives. Another big part of the holiday is food. Those with SPD and ASD can react to foods that are not part of their normal diet. Have some of your child’s favorites present at the holiday meal. This is not the time to experiment with new foods.


Christmas/Hanukkah: Both holidays involves lights. If your child complains about seeing light displays and flashing lights, this suggests he or she may have sensitivity to light.  Ceremonies and festivities involved in both holidays involve getting together with family and exchanging gifts and often food. During the month of December children have school or church plays, parties, and extra activities with friends and families. Again, the holidays are not the time to challenge the child, but neither should the rest of the family avoid the activities altogether for the sake of one who does not enjoy the activities.


New Year’s Eve: Noise makers, bright lights, big crowds, large parties, yelling as the clock strikes midnight- all of these sound fun and exciting, unless your brain processes them differently.  These can cause the sensory aversive child to recoil by possibly putting his hands over his ears or hiding.


As a mother of two children with sensory issues, I used to believe that I had the two most complaining children on the face of the planet until I educated myself about their challenges. I was always trying to get them to have fun and enjoy various things about the holidays, without understanding how they were not experiencing the holiday’s sensory issues the same way I was.


I believe there is balance in respecting the challenges of ASD/SPD and modifying events to a degree and embracing the traditional aspects of the holidays mentioned above. Take a mental inventory of the times the child seems to meltdown at the holiday? Were they using a sensory word or phrase?:  “That is too bright.”, “That is too loud”, “I hate that taste!”, “That is itchy!”, “That is scratchy!”,  “That is too hot”.   An Occupational Therapist is a great resource to help with sensory processing issues, but you can educate yourself through books and websites and gain practical solutions to help your child or teen through the sensory overload that is approaching in our upcoming holidays. Making some slight modifications will make the holidays more enjoyable to you and less stressful to your child with ASD or SPD.


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