Autism – How to reduce Sensory Overload over the Christmas Holidays

The sights sounds and smells of Christmas can be overwhelming for anybody, but especially for somebody with autism.  Sensory overloads are common among autistic people, and at times of the year like Christmas where every sense is assaulted from all angles, they can be even more common and difficult.  Below are some tips on how to minimise, or prevent a sensory overload.

  • Social Contact – lots of people use Christmas as a time to meet up with friends and family. This might mean having a full house, or lots of guests over the festive period which can be very difficult for people with autism. It is worth remembering that the autistic person might not want to meet up with friends or family – not because they are being anti-social, but because they need a break from social contact.  This doesn’t apply to everybody, but some people with autism do find it hard to be around a lot of people so maybe Christmas day is a time simply for immediate family, and if this is not possible make sure that person with autism has a quiet space to retreat to.
  • The Decorations – when thinking about decorations consider that the fact that they are designed to be visually stimulating – the very thing that some autistic people can find difficult. Having bright things up everywhere, all over the house, for an entire month may well contribute to the stress and sensory overload of somebody with autism.  This is not to say that decorations shouldn’t be put up, but perhaps putting up less, or toning them down a bit, and putting them up gradually, over a period of weeks might help.
  • The Tree – the tree itself is very similar to the decorations – perhaps don`t overload it. Go for a more minimalist approach. It might be worth just having lights on the tree, or just having a fibre-optic tree with no added decorations so that it can be turned off easily if the person with autism is starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, but wants to remain in the room. When it comes to lights also think about he fact that flashing lights can be difficult for people with autism, especially if they switch on and off quickly, or change colour rapidly.
  • Christmas Food – people with autism may not want to change their diet too much over Christmas, but even if they do, having all the sensory issues that come with tasting food that isn’t eaten at most other times of year can lead to difficulties. Again, leaving the autistic person to decide what they eat, and how much they change their diet is important. Introduce changes like this gradually in an attempt to lessen the sensory impact – the sight of food, as well as the smell, texture and taste can be overwhelming.
  • Christmas Shopping – shopping is perhaps the most overwhelming experience in anybody’s Christmas: the crowds, the lights, the noise and the stress combine to make a highly unpleasant experience. When somebody is autistic, shopping at any time of the year can feel the same as Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve feels for neuro-typical people.  It is worth thinking about this.  If somebody is autistic, and thinking about preparing their own Christmas shopping then maybe making multiple smaller trips in the weeks leading up to Christmas is better than making one big trip. If the autistic person is younger, or living with their family there isn’t a great deal of point them going Christmas shopping, but if they want to they can try wearing sunglasses/headphones/ear defenders to minimise sensory overload.  The autistic person can also shop on-line, and shouldn’t feel obliged to go to a busy store to do their shopping – it can be such a stressful experience that it is often best avoided altogether.
  • Additional Noise – this can come in any form – it could be the constant Christmas music, or pulling Christmas crackers. But whatever it is, it can be stressful for people with autism. From family to family the kinds of noise that are around the house at Christmas time will vary, but there are good ways of dealing with any kind of noise issues.  The first is allowing the person with autism to go off by themselves, perhaps to play on their computer with headphones on, or to listen to music, to cover the unwanted noises.  There are ear defenders or ear plugs to block out other noise, but also there is a responsibility with the family not to be over the top when making noise, and to bear in mind the autistic person`s sensory issues.
  • Unusual Smells – it might be something as simple as the Christmas dinner cooking, or any of the other smells that can be associated with Christmas, but unusual smells can distress autistic people. It is difficult to get rid of a smell without simply putting another smell in its place.  One technique that can be used though is to find a smell that the autistic person does like, for example lavender oil, and putting it on to a tissue or a cloth, so the autistic person can carry it around with them. They can then put it to their nose if they are becoming overwhelmed by the smells around them.  Because of how long a smell can linger in the nose, just having something like this can block out other unpleasant smells, and allow the person with autism to enjoy their Christmas.

Perhaps this may sound as if autistic people can’t get any fun out of Christmas, but this isn’t true.  Things are different for everybody, but most people with autism will enjoy Christmas food and decorations to some degree.  But this is one of the paradoxes of autism – just because a person enjoys something doesn’t mean it won’t have a negative effect on them.  There is no sure-fire way to stop sensory overload, but the above tips can definitely be helpful for some people.  It is about finding the right balance between not letting autism dominate, and also giving it a healthy respect and consideration when trying to have a good time.

My Mum created Transition Techniques for me to help me deal with change, such as the changes that take place over Christmas and New Year. If you want to learn more about our Transition Techniques see our book: