Christmas is really just around the corner and for many families it is the highlight of the year, for getting together and having fun. Everyone is happy, filled with Christmas food and Christmas cheer and looking forward to the presents they may receive.
However, let’s look at this event from two completely different perspectives.
Imagine sitting in front of a fire on Christmas morning. As you sit in your dressing gown, opening your presents, listening to the radio play Christmas songs, looking out at the beautiful white Christmas outside … you can smell the turkey starting to cook in the kitchen. You shout over the top of the music to get everyone organised (including the relatives who arrived last night to share the festivities). Wonderful … you have presents, gorgeous food and all the people you love around you!
Now, let’s think, for a minute, how an autistic child with sensory overload might feel in exactly the same environment?
- routine out of the window!
- stressed from having to sleep in a different bedroom because Grandma and Grandpa are sleeping in their room!
- Stressed from getting up early!
- Strange food for breakfast!
- Wrapping paper everywhere!
- Loud music, which makes your head hurt!
- The smell of turkey cooking!
- The smell of cinnamon candles burning on the table!
- Christmas lights everywhere hurting your eyes (even more so, if they are flashing lights!)
- Wearing a new dressing gown that smells funny because it has not yet been washed and has a label sticking into the back of your neck – Grandma insisted on it being worn immediately, because she took so long to choose it!
- Outside is covered in snow (where did the world go?)
- Everyone wanting hugs and kisses!!!!!!!!!
Autistic children can struggle with all their senses being overloaded. So how might they cope with each?
- Visual stimulus overload – they may cover their eyes, close eyes or avert their gaze completely
- Audio stimulus overload – they may cover their ears or scream to block out external noise
- Tactile stimulus overload – they may refuse to wear certain clothes, hate labels and not allow people to touch them
- Information stimulus overload – they may talk incessantly about the same thing or just make noises if they are non verbal
- Taste stimulus overload – they may restrict their diets to only a few foods
So, how can you help an autistic child with sensory overload issues, live happily in a world which is so full of stimulus that even WE beg sometimes for peace and quiet and just to be left alone?
CREATE A SOCIAL STORY
If it is a particular event that your child is repeating, you could create a social story to read with them several times a day. Of course, the story never changes (unlike our responses to their repetitive language) and so this may calm and reassure them.
You could write a list of everything that is going to happen and then your child can tick things off. They will then know exactly what is happening and when it is over.
If your child asks the same questions over and over, write all the answers (with pictures) and stick them on the fridge. That way when they ask a question, you can refer them to the answer, which never changes.
KEEP NUMBERS SMALL AND SPEND INDIVIDUAL TIME WITH YOUR CHILD
If you are having any family event or celebration, please keep numbers small. This will really help with your child’s ability to cope. Having two smaller events is a good idea.
Give your child some of your individual attention during an event, rather than letting them fend for themselves, while you concentrate on visitors!
LET YOUR CHILD CHOOSE WHAT TO WEAR
It really doesn’t matter what your child wears. What matters is that they are comfortable.
If your child hates being touched or hugged, then they probably are also very particular about their clothing. Make sure you wash all new clothes before your child wears them and take out all labels.
Presents are something that your child may not be at all interested in. I know my daughter had no interest in opening presents until she was about 8 years old and even then, she had no interest in what was inside. People will bring presents, but try to put them to one side to open later. Once everyone has gone home (or even the next day), your child may be much more relaxed about opening them.
DON’T MAKE FOOD AN ISSUE
You may think this looks delicious, but it could be your child’s worst nightmare!
Try to remain calm and relaxed around food yourself, or your child will sense your unease and become anxious too and never use a ‘special occasion’ as a time to introduce new foods.
If this is what your child would choose to eat, let them eat it at a family event!
ASK VISITORS TO RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S PERSONAL SPACE
If your family and friends are ‘huggers’ please ask them to save all their hugs for you and leave your child alone! Even children who love hugs, do not always want ‘auntie’ hugging them! My daughter loves hugs, but only with a select few people!
Ask your visitors just to be relaxed around your child. It is so tempting to ask our children lots of questions and think that that is the way we can interact with them. This can stress our children even in a relaxing environment, so with the added stimulus of everything else – it can lead our children into a meltdown.
CREATE A ‘CHILL ZONE’ FOR YOUR CHILD
Create a relaxing area in the house, for your child to retreat to when they are feeling overstimulated and need ‘time out’ away from people. It could just be in a room away from the chaos, with some cushions, a drink and their favourite activity, toy, iPad or DVD.
If you take great care to create an environment that does not overstimulate your child or minimises overstimulation, your child will thank you for it!
I look forward to hearing from you.
THE AUTISM NANNY