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Managing the Sensory Overload of Christmas

The end of the year seems to be closing in it brings with it a bombardment of change and

great anxiety for a lot of children. There are school concerts, Christmas decorations everywhere, school holidays, Christmas and then we have to start a whole new school year again. It is exhausting for most of us to even think about but it can be completely overwhelming for a child with anxiety, Autism or kids with sensory processing difficulties. Making it through this time is never easy but there are things we can do to make it bearable or hopefully enjoyable; give as much warning as possible, be really prepared with calming activities and allow for even more wind down time. The end of school term usually means changes in the usual routine of school work to make time for noisy, messy crafts and concert rehearsals. If this is something that your child finds stressful, it might be a good idea to remind your child’s teacher that while most of the children in the class will welcome these changes, your child may find it stressful.

From October we are inundated with Christmas decorations and festivities. Unfortunately some will have an adverse effect on children who struggle with change and sensory overload. The stress of it all can build up for a child. They may not react straight away but it show up several days later as difficult behaviour. This behaviour is easy to label as "naughty" or "defiant" but this time of year can just so overwhelming that we need to take into account that it can have on our little people. Blinking lights, glittery objects, sound making trinkets, these can wear down the senses over time without anyone even realizing what it was.

A few things should be in your mind:

  • If you have lights, pick lights that stay on, or have settings such that you can have them blink from time to time but be set to be consistently on the rest of the time.

  • Some tinsel is nice, but if you have bright lights aimed around or aimed at the tree, these and other decorations can give off blinding little flashes that you and I might not think much about but can get very frustrating. If you notice your child ‘retreating’ from the room or finding a favourable spot, it may be because it has the least glare.

  • Background music is best kept in the background, if at all. That means, keep it quiet. If you have it to where you can make out the words and sing along, it might be too loud for your little one. Remember, your children might not have a ‘background’ setting when it comes to their senses. That means that what you barely notice is there, they hear perfectly clearly and are having to battle that music while trying to listen to you. If they don’t listen to you, it might just be that they don’t actually hear you.

  • Get your children to help with decorations. Getting them involved is a wonderful way of helping them cope with them being there. They feel a huge sense of pride but also comfort in knowing that the decorations are there because they put them there. They remain ‘in control’ of their space.

For the holiday period in general scheduling in advance, and letting your child know what the schedule is and any changes to routine is a very good idea. It may be impossible to have a strict schedule but you can develop a loose “routine” for the holidays, such as when we put up our tree, when you will see certain relatives, Christmas eve and Christmas day activities and even meals! It gives a stable setting to rely on when things may get a little unsteady, as well as the ability to schedule wind -down periods where they can rest and “recharge”.

Christmas also brings parties, the noisy overly social gatherings that sensitive kids tend to need a lot of preparation for. However the kids are not the only ones that need to be prepared, others may need to be told in advance that your child will very likely not hug them, much less give them kisses, to get their presents or treats. The first person they have to reluctantly hug for something in return may be the trigger that makes the rest of the night

unbearable. Make sure your child says please and thank you but that’s it, no one should expect more than that.

If you do have Christmas at your house, discuss ‘safe zones’ with your children. Someplace they feel safe, it’s quiet, comfortable... set up some toys or anything else

they like such that they can retreat when need be. They might just disappear there the whole time but it’s better than what could be the alternative. Going to someone else’s house to celebrate the holidays doesn’t give you a safe zone but that shouldn’t stop you from finding one, arrange it with your host beforehand. If your child needs space, take them there. Don’t make it a time out zone, but just a place to get away. Take with you their favourite music and headphones, ipad, drawing, fiddle toys or anything else they may need to help ease the sensory overload. Have a plan with your child of how they will tell you when they need a break.

Then before you know it the back to school advertisements are in the stores. Again have some sort of schedule with your child to keep a routine in the holidays but add activities such as buying new school equipment, new school shoes and uniforms. If you were able it is helpful to find out who your child’s teacher will be before the end of term but this is not always possible. You could also take your child to the school in the lead up to school returning to play on the equipment or just walk around. Try the week or two before school returns to get back into the school routine of regular bedtime, wake up time and even lunch and recess times. Remind your child that they will be returning to school soon. It is a good idea to write a social story with them of what will happen at school or read books about starting back at school. If your child has a particular friend they play with at school it is a good idea to arrange some play dates before school returns.

The holiday period is still a lovely time of the year but will be even more special for you and your child if we remember the extra requirements that sensitive children need and be prepared to make some adjustments. Merry Christmas everyone!!!!

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