Navigating the Holiday Season

I love holiday seasons!  Those special days like Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, etc., are often not just a single day for me.  There are so many things to do, people to see, activities to participate in; how do people manage if they limit these awesome times to a single day?  Sounds like a recipe for sensory overload to me.   Even when I prolong the pleasure (or the agony, depending upon perspective), over a couple of days (or a month), the experience can become overwhelming.  The sights, smells, and sounds of any of the holiday days can be exquisite, and intense.  Neurodiverse individuals are often even more acutely aware of these sensory aspects (aka stressors), than neurotypical individuals are.  I am often asked at the clinic how to help families mitigate holiday stressors.  Sadly, there are no magical aspects to this as different people respond differently to different stressors.  Generally speaking though, there are often a few things I suggest trying to help make special occasions more manageable for our neurodiverse loved ones and their families.

My primary recommendation is to try to keep things realistic.  Individuals who do not like crowds of people are not apt to make an exception “because it’s Christmas” or because all  50 people (OK, even all 15) “are family.”  A crowd is any number that is more than what is usual in your home,  If the grocery store is often more than is manageable, a day of shopping in the mall around any of the holidays can create more exhaustion or distress than is needed or wanted.
Gifts are sometimes challenging for neurodiverse individuals.  Again, let’s be realistic about why this can be.  New items smell and feel different.  Some neurodiverse people do not like “new” smells and the feeling of new clothes, toys, blankets, etc.  This can be challenging when new items are needed or even have been asked for.  Gifts are for the person receiving–if “new” is problematic, buying “new to you” clothing can be perfect.  New toys can be less challenging in that they can be opened and aired out, even washed to reduce the “new” smells and feel.  Being realistic about what the gift receiver wants and enjoys can ward off many tears of frustration for ALL involved.
Holidays in my family are always laden with foods and beverages (quite likely a reason why I like them so much).  For some people the foods and drinks of holidays are fun but for others they are frustrating and not appreciated as they get in the way of the foods that are typical.  On top of that, when there are issues with foods touching, meals with huge varieties of dishes can be a big problem.  Sometimes it’s possible to avoid the “yuckiness” of foods touching on the individual’s plate but when others are loading plates, sometimes just seeing what other people will eat can verge on horrifying; like gravy on a vegetable…gross!!  It’s realistic to minimize food “traumas” by doing things like arranging seating to reduce exposure to overloaded plates and to provide some comfort foods if this will allow the holiday experience to be pleasurable.
My final suggestion is engage in preparation; set the stage so to speak.  Prepare the neurodiverse individual for what is coming; give them a framework for what behaviours are expected and present this in the positive; “this is what we want to do” as opposed to “we don’t do that.”  As well as preparing the neurodiverse individual, also prepare the neurotypical people for aspects that the neurodiverse individual might find important.  It’s ok to tell someone that although they would love to see a gift played with and tried on, that this might not happen on an already chaotic day.  Although it may feel uncomfortable to explain to others that hugs and kisses are not going to be forthcoming and are not desired, that discussion is not likely as uncomfortable as unwanted touch or as the meltdown that may result from the sensory overload.
I tend to expand holidays to try to reduce some of the sensory overload.  I prolong the events so that I can try to do more of “the things” without doing “all the things” at once, with everyone.  For me, having multiple days to celebrate means less overall chaos.  For me personally, being realistic with holidays does mean prolonging the season in various creative ways.  I definitely want to experience both a shamrock shake and green guinness but not on the same day, because that would be GROSS.  For others, protracting the season is not realistic, and that is OK too.  Do what is realistic for you and your family, after all, there is no one correct way to celebrate,
Holidays can be amazing or disastrous and everything in between.  In my experience, being realistic with expectations and planning can help slide the odds in the direction of holidays being enjoyable for all.
Merry Christmas!!!!
Blog Post written by Registered Psychologist, Tara Garratt.
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