While joyful and exciting, the holidays also present unique challenges for children with autism and other executive function challenges. Even if you have strategies in place to help your child self-regulate, this time of year often brings changes that may not be easily managed with your go-to coping mechanisms. Fortunately, you can plan ahead to navigate these seasonal differences. Find out how to help overstimulation challenges during the holidays below.
Common Sources of Overstimulation During the Holidays
Overstimulation occurs when someone becomes overwhelmed by too much sensory input. The senses become overloaded with stimuli; there are too many sounds, sights, and smells happening at once. For people with autism and other executive function disorders, even irritating fabric from clothing can contribute to sensory overload.
While overstimulation can happen any time, it’s especially common during the holidays. We tend to enter new situations this time of year, many of which can overwhelm the senses. Crowded stores, events with bright lights and loud music, and even household decorations are all excess stimuli. To complicate matters further, the holidays typically bring schedule changes that can be disruptive for children.
People with executive function conditions thrive on routine and predictability, but social gatherings, long family to-do lists, and seasonal events interfere with the norm. Together, these changes can make it easy for your child to become overstimulated if they have autism, and holidays can become more stressful for everyone. However, there are ways to manage these challenges so both you and your child can feel comfortable and enjoy the festivities.
How to Help Overstimulation Issues
As you embark on holiday events, here are a few ways to help your child avoid or navigate scenarios and reduce the risk of becoming overstimulated.
1. Practice Ahead of Time
New and unfamiliar situations can trigger overstimulation. However, if your child knows how to navigate different scenarios, they may feel better prepared for what’s to come. Consider scripting conversations and practicing them with your child so they feel prepared to field questions and provide responses. You might also role play activities like opening and giving gifts.
2. Offer Coping Tools
If your child has autism and the holidays are more stressful than other times, consider offering coping tools to minimize the stimuli in their environment. Some children self-regulate more effectively with headphones and sunglasses, which can make stimuli less intense, while others might prefer a weighted blanket for comfort.
3. Provide a Safe Space
Even with thoughtful approaches, overstimulation can occur. If your child is approaching a meltdown, having a safe space can help them de-escalate. Have a plan in advance for getting them there promptly, including which adult will accompany them and which space you’ll use. You might ask a relative if there’s a bedroom or other private space where your child can cool down, for instance.
4. Ease Transitions
Again, predictability is a simple and effective tool for preventing overstimulation. You can set timers or use visual clocks to help your child know when an event is ending. Give yourselves extra time to get to and from places this season. Feeling rushed can be a major source of overstimulation.
5. Scale Back
The fear of missing out can be compelling this time of year, but saying yes to everything can set your family up for added stress. As the parent, it’s up to you to decide which holiday traditions are worth pursuing and which might be too overstimulating for your child. For example, keeping holiday décor simple could help to maintain a soothing environment for your child, and turning down some back-to-back plans can make everyone’s schedule more manageable.
Accommodate your child’s needs in simple ways, such as allowing them to wear their favorite shirt instead of a holiday sweater and bringing their preferred foods to gatherings with meals. Prioritize the traditions that mean the most while embracing your family’s version of what it means to enjoy the holidays.