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The holidays are upon us, and we are buzzing around, trying to prepare in advance to make our gatherings a joyous time to remember. For families who have a child or children with autism, there is a lot more to prepare in addition to the usual food preparation, gift-giving, and calendar setting.
Families who have kids with autism with sensory sensitivities have the added task of ensuring that everything they eat or attend to is something that can be enjoyed (or at least tolerated) by their child and all of the family members.
At Circle Care, we understand that often children with autism and sensory processing issues can be easily overwhelmed at this time of year. The sights, sounds, and disruption to their routine can result in a sensory overload for kids with autism. Yet there are ways to make this an enjoyable holiday for all.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing, also known as integration, is how the body registers and interprets sensory input from its environment, including their own body. Simply put, it’s how the brain receives and responds to stimuli from its surroundings.
All of the body’s sensory systems must work in tandem for effective sensory processing. It’s crucial to understand that the seven senses comprise the human body’s sensory system, and these sensory systems process information and act as foundational steps to other skills.
This is the ability to disseminate and interpret information related to a person’s movement and balance.
This is the skin’s receptors’ ability to receive touch sensations, including vibration, pressure, pain, temperature, and movement.
This is the ability to comprehend and then interpret what is seen. The body’s eyes can identify visual input through light waves that stimulate the retina. By utilizing the eyes, the optical system can receive information such as the contrast of light and dark, movement, and color.
Otherwise known as the body’s sense of taste, uses the tongue to receive taste sensations. The tongue and the inside of the mouth can detect if the chemical components of what a person is tasting are harmful or not.
The sense of sound is the capacity to understand the information being heard. The auditory system receives its data through pitch, volume, and rhythm.
This is the ability to interpret smells. The nose can receive information about the chemical makeup of particles in the air. This helps it determine if the odor is safe or not.
This is the ability to interpret where your body is relative to other people and objects. This information is interpreted through a person’s nerves and sheaths on the muscles.
What is sensory overload?
Whether you realize it or not, most of us have experienced sensory overload. It is not unique to kids with autism. Often we’re so used to it that we automatically work through it and don’t even know there is a name for what we’re feeling.
Sensory overload occurs when a person, sound, light, smell, or thing overstimulates one of our senses. Examples of this could include a room full of people, a loud TV, or a very smelly restaurant.
We can usually control and calm the overload by escaping the place, person, or thing that’s providing the discomfort. That means leaving the party, finding another place to eat, or turning down the TV volume. Or, worst case scenario, we just tolerate the discomfort for a while.
Yet, children with sensory processing issues, which is a crucial characteristic of kids on the autism spectrum, are overloaded much more quickly.
Children with autism spectrum disorder who have difficulty interpreting sensory information have a Sensory Processing Disorder. If a kid with autism has a problem with sensory processing, they might exhibit some of the following behaviors:
- Inappropriate behavior
- Poor attention
- Being overactive
- Exhibiting immature social skills
- Have poor sleep patterns
- Enjoy movement-based equipment (i.e., swings, hammocks, slides)
- Lacking in speed of activity or being lethargic
- Being uncomfortable in crowds or large group settings
- Suffering from increased anxiety.
Children with sensory processing issues who are overloaded act in ways that many adults and children might find confusing. They may complain about their clothes being uncomfortable, the lights being too bright, crying, avoiding certain places, shutting down, and not answering questions.
Some autistic children even demonstrate extreme behavior, such as screaming if their faces get wet or crashing into walls or people. All these behaviors happen because the child’s senses have been overloaded with stimuli, and they have difficulty interpreting the data they’ve received.
What are the most common sensory triggers in kids with autism?
The most effective way to circumvent sensory overload for a child with autism is to understand what triggers them.
Here are the top ten triggers that can affect your child during the holiday activities and some simple suggestions for monitoring their well-being.
Does your child have sensory overload when in crowded or loud places? Watch your child for signs that the surrounding noise is starting to irritate or overwhelm them. These signs could include placing hands over the ears, rocking, trying to leave the area, anxiety, or crying. Plan events that are within their level of tolerance for noise when possible. If your child looks like they’re becoming overwhelmed, move them to a quiet space. This will help calm them and deal with the sound overload. You can even carry noise-canceling headphones and cover your child’s ears if they find themselves in particularly noisy places.
Plan by inviting a new babysitter over to visit so your child and the babysitter can get to know one another. If your child is not comfortable with strangers, it would not be the best idea to attend an event where you must leave your child in an unfamiliar childcare setting. It is also not the best time to invite an unfamiliar babysitter to your home for the first time while you and your spouse go out for a holiday date.
Remember that big or small changes can often be difficult for autistic children. Packing the day with one event after another or participating in anything that moves quickly from one task to the next can result in a child’s refusal to participate or even a complete meltdown from being overwhelmed. Plan events at a relaxed and healthy pace and regularly check in with her child to ensure they’re comfortable handling the situation.
Imagine you’re at a family gathering where a cousin or grandparent consistently stands too close to your kid with autism. Other children might physically distance themselves from this personal space invader. But autistic children may not understand why they’re feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
Teach your child with autism that it is okay to speak up if someone is standing too close and making them feel upset or uncomfortable. Give them some helpful statements they can use, such as, “Pardon me, I’m going to stand a little further back. I’m not comfortable standing so close.” Teach them to use a polite tone when asking for distance from another person. Social skills are essential!
5. Change of Routine:
Sometimes the unexpected occurs, and we need to change our plans. As much as you can, try not to upset any plans you have already discussed with your child who has autism. Children on the autism spectrum try to prepare themselves in their minds for the next thing on their list of events. When that changes, it can cause significant upset for them. If change is unavoidable, ensure you discuss everything thoroughly with your child and equip them with various ways to adjust. For example, show them a calendar and explain that the original plans can be moved to another day. Or, explain the new plan’s benefits and emphasize the positives rather than the negatives.
Know your child’s limits. As much as you can, keep things tolerable for your child so that they will enjoy themselves and be more flexible about trying new things in the future. If they are only good for an hour or two of being around many people, try not to plan an all-day event. If they don’t like a particular food, find a restaurant with many options to enjoy something they like. If they experience anxiety in a crowded place, plan your event on a day or time when the crowds are more sparse.
7. Stressful Situations:
If any stressful situation happens, check in with your child. If another child is hurt at the park, stay with your child and then discuss what happened. Keep them safe and explain the circumstances. Assure them that the other child will be okay and praise them for staying calm or near you.
Usually, chaos is hard to prepare for. For example, you witness a traffic accident and are stuck in traffic. At the same time, the ambulance, the police, and various onlookers run about and attend to the drivers in the vehicles. This can be scary for a child. Reassure and talk to them. Explain what is happening and use the opportunity to teach them about helping others. Do whatever you can to keep anxiety down.
If it is possible to prepare for chaos (ex., a fire drill at school)- be sure to fully disclose all of the details of what is going on and appropriate responses. This is also an excellent time to discuss other options like earplugs, fidgets, or whatever sensory tools your child with autism needs to calm anxiety.
9. Being Ignored:
Nobody appreciates being ignored. However, children with autism can display extreme behaviors if their warning signs for stress are not heeded. Suppose you are too busy to notice pacing, rocking, vocal sounds, hair pulling, or other known triggers. In that case, it shouldn’t surprise you when the result is a tantrum, destruction of property (tearing paper, throwing objects, etc.), or eloping (leaving the area). Check-in on your child regularly and respond appropriately when you see the warning signs. Try not to let your child get to the point of no return. It is better to catch stress signs early.
Many children with autism find it soothing to have something to focus on when exposed to new settings or people. Make sure to provide your child with something they can occupy themselves with during these times. Most children with autism are visually stimulated, so the tablet is almost always a winner. Having a snack, a book or drawing pad, and markers available is enough for most children on the autism spectrum. You know your child best. If you want to keep them calm, it is always best to have something available to them to keep them distracted from long waits, boring adult conversations, or tasks that don’t interest them.
What is a sensory toolkit, and how do I make one?
Knowing what your child with autism likes and doesn’t like, what they can tolerate and what simply won’t work with them is essential to keeping all participants happy. One of the easiest ways to ensure a sensory-friendly holiday is through advanced preparation. This is where a sensory toolkit, something most ABA and occupational therapists carry when working with children on the autistic spectrum.
Sensory toolboxes, also known as toolkits, are an easy way to help children handle overstimulation and prevent them from hitting sensory overload. You can include many different things in your child’s sensory toolkit, including the following:
Bring Comfort Items
Include a favorite blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal in your sensory toolkit to calm your child. These comfort items’ familiarity and positive feelings will bring tremendous calm in an overly stimulating situation.
Bring Favorite Snacks
This is especially helpful if your child is sensitive to particular tastes, textures, or smells. Your child may want to try new foods while out during the holidays, but if they’re overwhelmed, you’ve packed some old favorites.
Choose Clothes Wisely
This is very important if your child is sensitive to certain textures or types of fabric. If your child gets easily frustrated with zippers, don’t put them in a new outfit with zippers on New Year’s Eve. Instead, opt for something familiar.
Enjoy a sensory-friendly holiday.
Awareness of your child’s emotional status is also part of keeping everyone happy and peaceful. There will be days throughout the holidays when even your child’s most preferred activity has worn on them, and they are “done.” Reading those cues and transitioning from stress to calm is a skill you will want to master as a parent of a child with autism.
Circle Care Services is an ABA agency in New Jersey staffed with highly skilled professionals who can help you learn the skills you need to help your child with autism.
Your child will greatly benefit from learning new behavior and social skills that will equip them for life.
For more tips and information on how Circle Care Services can help you and your family, register for our newsletter or call us now for a consultation.