Lately I find myself in a bit of holi-daze thinking about all of the magical chaos that is Christmas time in the land of little kiddos. Our “to do” list seems to grow exponentially each year. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about my energy supply.
December is a marathon and not a sprint. There are lights to hang, trees to decorate, holiday cards to order, stockings to stuff, shopping to do, holiday concerts to attend, Santas to visit, cookies to frost, presents to wrap, stockings to stuff, and not to mention a mischievous little red elf to be moved each night.
And, as I stop to recount all of the holiday chaos in my own life, I am reminded that I live with a little person with Autism Spectrum Disorder. And as overwhelming and chaotic as the holidays seem to me, I cannot begin to imagine what all of this must look and feel like to someone with a sensory processing disorder.
I am a fully-functioning adult with typical sensory reactions. And most days it is all I can do to keep my cool amongst never-ending crowds. I find myself distracted by the merriment of music and flashing colors all around me. I fight the urge to retreat from the chaos of each store that I enter.
The colors are brighter, the music is louder, and the crowds are bigger. There are people in costumes ringing bells. Stores are flooded with huge crowds of people with varying degrees of manners and patience. Everything around us comes to life during the holidays. It is equal part exhilarating and overwhelming.
Christmas is a lot for me. I think Christmas is probably a lot for most people. And, if Christmas is a lot for me, I can only imagine what Christmas feels like for my 4 year old son.
So, how do we manage Christmas and autism? The answer is quite simple, we do it carefully and with intention. We make conscious decisions each day to consider our son’s diagnosis. Celebrating an autism-friend Christmas does not mean removing all of the magic and joy, it just means turning it down a little bit.
We prepare. We talk to him and use social stories and movies to describe Christmas. We let him be involved in decorating. He watches us move the furniture and put up the Christmas tree. I put my beautiful glass ornaments on a shelf in storage and instead hang “shatterproof” ornaments that work in the reality of our home. And some days our shatterproof ornaments are touched and tossed and rolled and dropped and kicked. And that is ok. We brought Christmas into our house in a way that works for all of the people who live there.
We accommodate: Our schedules are turned upside down a little during the holidays. At school they loosen the structure of the day to make time for holiday concert practices and festive arts and crafts. At home we are scheduled for more dinners and outings and family activities than usual. The business of it all is overwhelming. When we schedule for our family we ask ourselves one simple question “Is the best thing for us?” And, sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes even when the activity sounds fun we have to say no. Sometimes even when we have previously said yes we need to change our answer and say no. Not because we are a bunch of Christmas scrooges, but because there will always be another holiday party or festive show or family get together. We live our life one moment at a time. And, in each moment we make decisions that are the best for us.
And when we say yes we do more preparing. We bring our emergency bag of tricks. We control the volume and lights and crowds as much as we can. We deliberately arrive early when the crowds are small to give him time to adjust. And most importantly, we recognize the early cues to pack it up and head out.
We celebrate: The holidays would be easier from the comfort of my couch watching holiday movies in front of the fire place with hot chocolate. But there is just too much magic out in the world waiting for us. So we prepare and accommodate for a Christmas in the real world so that we can celebrate with our children. We are not willing to minimize our Christmas experience just because it would be easier.
And, we are hopeful that with each passing day the world outside of our home will become more sensory friendly. We are encouraged by all of the stores and holiday performances that held autism-friendly campaigns over the holidays. The greatest gift of all this holiday season is the notion that this wonderful magical world we live in is becoming a safer, more welcoming place for my son.
In the end, it is all about balance.
It is carving out precious moments to savor the magic of Christmas with our children. It is awareness of the needs of our children. It believing in things even if we cannot see them. It is being thankful for the joy in simple things. It is teaching our children about forgiveness. It is worrying about presence first, and presents second.
Balance. Magic. Awareness. Belief. Forgiveness. Presence.
Because after all, that is what Christmas is all about.
Merry Sensory-Friendly-Christmas From our family to yours!