3 Tips for Navigating the Holidays with Special Needs
Bright lights, bustling shops, sweet treats, new experiences.
The holiday season is upon us. For many people, this time comes with high anticipation and excitement. For people like my clients and me, the holidays present unique challenges and opportunities.
Ever since my brain injury two and a half years ago, I experience life with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). My sensory world is quite similar to the sensory world of my students with autism. It is like someone jacked up the volume to the limit – lights, movement, and touch sensitivity increased too. Lack of sleep, lack of routine, high stress (even good stress), and lack of healthy food make everything worse.
Since my head-first fall off of a climbing structure, Christmas lights and flickering candles have ranged from annoying to unbearable. Crowded public places cause panic and the change of my diet and routine leaves me on edge. Don’t get me wrong – I love the extra time with family and friends and the rituals of the season. I just need to do it differently now. I need to prioritize, pack the right tools, and know the agenda. I finally get what my clients with special needs were trying to tell me for years:
“I can love the idea of something, but that doesn’t mean I can participate in the way or to the extent you expect.”
If you are wondering how to make the holiday season as enjoyable as possible for your neuro-diverse loved ones here are three tips to consider:
There are many optional outings, concerts, or events that you can encourage but not require during this time of year. Even if your dream was to sit with your child at The Nutcracker, think about the deeper purpose of the dream. Is it to create enjoyable memories together? Spend quality time connecting?
Then ask yourself: Will taking your loved one to the event or location you desire fulfill that deeper purpose? If not, begin with the desired result in mind and go from there. Maybe you zoom around the Cass Park ice rink with your loved one pushing you in your wheelchair (or you pushing theirs!) or take a quiet walk together in the woods with your family member who loves to spend time away from crowds. No need to cancel, just shift the activity to meet the goal.
At the end of the day, if you really want to go to that concert at Cornell or the Winter Light Festival on the Commons and your companion feels overwhelmed by the idea, go solo or invite another friend who would love to share that experience! Nobody needs an extra serving of resentment for the holiday feast.
By now you might be thinking: “I can’t just bow out of or change all of my holiday plans!” Here is the big question to grapple with:
What are the non-negotiables?
Do you have to make it to the office party with your whole family in tow? Are you a purist who requires a freshly cut tree to decorate? Do you always spend the last night of Hanukkah at your mother-in-law’s?
If the answer is “yes” to any of the above statements or you have a fill-in-the-blank that is equally as important, spend time figuring out how to make those experiences as enjoyable as possible.
Can you find soft clothing instead of stiff or itchy formal wear? What about scheduling several days on the calendar for tree cutting and pick the one with the warmest weather? What if you give a very specific time limit for that the outing (emergencies excluded)? Can you make a deal with your family members that they can appropriately ask or indicate the need to go for a walk or move to another room when the family chatter gets too loud, then practice what that looks like and sounds like ahead of time?
Pre-planning doesn’t have to include flow charts and minute by minute breakdowns of your anticipated event, but making sure everyone has comfortable clothing, break time, and an exit plan will help everyone enjoy, or at least tolerate, the experience.
2. Pack tools:
When I am low on sleep or in a stressful situation, I need more tools to cope. I chew mint gum and wear a brimmed hat to avoid overhead lights. I pop noise-cancelling headphones into my ears and sometimes even strap on a weighted compression vest under my coat.
Other tools my students and clients use include fidget toys (even a twig to shred, twisty ties, or Velcro to rub will work), a watch, a snack, music, soft clothing (free of tags), soft shoes, a comforting lotion or hand sanitizer, and a way to communicate (a picture board, communication app, or basic signs for yes, no, and “all done”).
Before I lived life with SPD, I thought these tools were nice but not really necessary. I was wrong. While I don’t need all my tools all the time, I last longer and have more fun when my body is regulated. Instead of thinking about the closest exit, I enjoy the content of the experience.
Even when I am good on sleep and nutrition, I usually carry my ear protection and hat with me. As the day wears on and unexpected events accumulate, I start to lose steam. The right tools help me keep going.
Sometimes I can go to an event excited and ready. Then the sound is too loud or the wrong pitch or there is a flickering light and I lose it. I feel like a switch flips inside my body and I go from okay to “get me out of here right this minute.”
When I have the right tools and prioritize my experiences, I am usually okay.
I am sharing this with you so you don’t feel ridiculous when you take the time to turn the car around and get headphones or non-pinchy shoes. It is not silly to purchase a pack of gum at the beginning of your shopping trip. It is insurance for the journey through the aisles of glittery chaos. Even if your loved one doesn’t use the tool, knowing it is accessible is sometimes comfort enough.
3. Give an Overview of the Agenda:
Knowing what to expect can help a worried or hyper-active mind. When we get our hair cut we can expect to wait, get a cut, pay, and leave. When we go out to eat we can expect to wait, order, get food, eat it, pay the bill, then leave. If someone you love is on the autism spectrum or tends to be anxious or spirited, overtly sharing these steps for any public outing can go a long way to setting everyone up for a positive experience. That being said, it is also critical to mention that plans can change due to surprises and emergencies.
If you are going shopping at Wegmans you might say, “I expect our trip to get food is going to take about one and a half hours (usually better to overestimate time). Would you like me to set a timer on my phone? Let me go through what to expect: we’ll park the car, get a cart, go to produce, then the deli, the dairy section, then cereal then the frozen section. There will probably be some surprises along the way. See if you can spot them. You’ll know we are almost done when we circle around to get toilet paper then go check out. You can pick the check out line if you’d like.”
Even if your family member is young, non-verbal, or intellectually challenged, these cues help ease confusion. A written list or a few scribbled pictures of bananas, cheese and oatmeal as well as toilet paper will go even further to ease most people’s overwhelm, even if they can’t read.
Some people are also willing to put up with big crowds and bright lights if they know they have some power over the situation, like keeping the time, saying the next thing on the list or picking the line. You can even give a simple choice of, “this lane or that one?”
While you can use all of these tips to add more peace and joy to your holiday season, here is the most critical idea to remember: figure out the deeper purpose of the holiday season for you and your family and plan your interactions with the community to support your true goal.