Christmastime and Sensory Issues

Today was a day of reflection. I thought back to all the years of Christmases where Em would sit and not want to open gifts. Often she’d open one or two gifts and be done. She’d roll her eyes and it’d be hard to tell if she REALLY enjoyed her gift. Occassionally, she’d squeal in delight. Often though, those times were when we were low key. She struggled a lot with Christmas over the years. Especially at big family gatherings. She’d get ansy and slightly aggitated. How Matt and I would corner in a corner with her gifts, begging her to just finish opening them to thank Grandma/Grandpa/Aunts/Uncles/Whomever the gift was from. Only to have to turn around and wrestle with her to try on clothing. The clothing thing, flew out the window early on and we just PRAYED everything fit right.

Christmas gatherings turned into my nightmare. Would Em eat? Would she remember to be grateful and thankful? Would Christian and her get into a fight? How many meltdowns would there be? How would she do? How would she survive the day? How would I survive the day? How many fights would I get in with Matt, Christian and Em? How I grew to resent family gatherings and holidays. But Christmas topped my nightmare. But I never understood why. That was, until today.

I stopped today and thought about the newfound knowledge we gathered this year. I’m just going to look at it from the sensory perspecitive. Sensory wise, this has to be the hardest thing for her, and kids like her. Lights and flashes from the tree and cameras. Noise from people ooohing and aahing and laughing and talking and the rustle of paper ripping and crumpling and shifting and being shoved into plastic bags. Some of us even have soft background music playing. The discomfort of potentially new clothing to have to try on. The anxiety of “I’m comfortable in my clothing and you want me to take it off” overwhelming as they look over the new clothing. Clothing that may still be stiff and not “soft”. The material may be one that fuels sensory issues. Tags that aren’t “soft” yet scratching you. Tags that you can’t rip off yet irritating you. People touching you as your skin starts crawling. The hugs and kisses. Smells overpowering you. From lotion bottles being opened and smelt and perfumes being tested. To people wearing perfume and it mixing with someone else’s perfume. Add to that the smell of baked cookies and cakes and breads and pies to the food that is being cooked.

I haven’t touched on half of the stuff that ran through my head today. It’s a wonder we got through ANY Christmas at all ever. And not just Christmas. Any family gathering with half the sensory “offenders”. No wonder she gave up the idea of eating anything on Christmas (or any other family get together). No wonder she was exhausted and what we called “whiney” and “tired” after opening gifts. Just typing it up made my stomach flip in realization of why we started to break up the holidays. We didn’t know why, but we knew it was too much for her. Thinking back, I’m surprised it’s not too much for us too.

So the next time you know someone on the spectrum or who has a sensory sensitivity is coming for Christmas try to understand they may not be able to show their thanks for something they really really want. They may not be able to embrace you like you want. They may fight you on trying on clothing but it’s more the clothing than the actual trying it on. If you can keep the lights softer and try to use no flash (if you can) and use gift bags with mimimal tissue. The sounds may be less overwhelming. Also let them have space. If they want to walk away and open their gifts later, I know we get excited to see their faces, but give them time. You can always have them open them throughout the day or time.

Let them show you what they can handle and when they can handle it. Gradually, they will be able to do and tolerate more. They will blow your mind away when they can too!


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