Tis the Season for Sensory Overload

Allow me to introduce you to a holiday season in a sensory sensitive household. But before I do, I must define neurodiversity, because people with sensory sensitivities can also be described as neurodiverse. Neurodiversity is an academic way of saying a person’s brain works differently than the "typical" brain does. This term commonly used to describe individuals diagnosed with autism, ADHD, sensory process disorder, learning disabilities, and many other things. The social media community has brought the term neurodiverse to the forefront of society is recent years, but it was used as early as 1998 by Judy Singer, a sociologist in Australia who happens to be diagnosed with autism.

To summarize, Ms. Singer wants everyone to understand that a brain that works differently is not a bad thing. People who have neurodiverse brains do not have a disorder; and it is not a medical condition that needs to be fixed. It is just different. Just like we have different hair textures that have different needs to be healthy, we have different ways our brains experience the world and they also have different needs to be healthy. And that is what I am introducing you to today. My family is filled with neurodiversity, and we are going to experience the holiday season a little differently than "normal."

If you were to walk into my home, you would immediately notice that the heat is higher than expected. Wearing multiple layers is very uncomfortable for us and simply we cannot wear a sweater to keep the heater low. So take off your coat, scarf, sweater, and maybe even your socks. You won’t need them in my home and you will be much more comfortable without them.

Although it is only the first week of December, our decorations are up. It is our family tradition to decorate the day after Thanksgiving, and nothing can deter us from this tradition. I have a child who lives and breathes by a schedule and this tradition gives him safety in addition to comfort and joy. Additionally, each ornament, stocking, and wreath is placed in the exact position as it was last year, for another child must have the decorations just so. The predictability of this pattern makes him feel safe, in addition to making him happy. The lights on the tree do not twinkle but stay stationary, because someone in the family is distracted by blinking lights. You would think that with all these requirements that decorating is a chore, but it is not; the house is festive and beautiful, while remaining in the comfort levels of everyone’s neurodiversity.

Visiting the “Jolly Old Elf” for pictures is not as simple as visiting the local mall and standing in line for an hour. Malls are too bright, too loud, too crowded, and the wait for a picture is just too long. Taking my children to the mall during the holiday season would not be an enjoyable experience. So I scour the internet looking for Sensory-Friendly Santa events. Sensory-Friendly Santa events are designed for children on the autism spectrum (my children's diagnosis) to visit Santa in a controlled sensory environment. They are usually hosted before the mall opens, with dim lights, the music at a lower volume, and plenty of activities to do that will distract from the wait for their turn with the big guy. The best part is there is usually plenty of coffee and hot chocolate for the parents and caregivers.

Speaking of controlled environments, we do not go to friends' and families' holiday parties. Loud festive parties full of holiday carols blaring through speakers, a buffet of foods with unfamiliar smells, and sudden outbursts of laughter are overstimulating for my family. 

Instead of loud parties full of distant relatives and friends, we enjoy quiet nights at home browsing Hoopla, Kanopy, and the Overdrive Screening Room for holiday themed shows. We love to end our days with warm blankets and hot apple cider in front of the tv. If you were to join us for our movie nights, you would notice the closed captioning on the screen. I have auditory processing disorder (another neurodivergent diagnosis) and cannot watch tv without it. 

Instead of a buffet of celebratory holiday dishes that only come out once a year, with fine china and fancy silverware, we feast on familiar dishes with our familiar plates. I admit we do enjoy playing with the jellied cranberry sauce and making it wiggle on a saucer. But we never eat it because according to one of my sons it is “too wiggly to be a real food”.

I know from the outside looking in, it sounds like we are missing out on all the fun of the season. But we don't feel like we are missing out on anything. We still bake cookies and build gingerbread houses, send and receive holiday cards, and enjoy other quiet activities that make this time of year special.  While we enjoy what we can, we eliminate what doesn't give us joy so we can have a happy holiday season. Besides, there is one place we can visit every holiday season that accommodates our sensory issues without any special accommodations: The Public Library. 

There are books to stimulate our imaginations, craft kits to take home and enjoy at our own pace, and plenty of warm friendly eyes above masked smiles to greet us each visit. Best of all, nothing will have changed. That’s why, in my neurodivergent family, we love the holidays in the library. The best part is that the library provides us with joy not just this season, but all year long.

Look Me in the Eye

Autism in Heels

Sincerely, your Autistic Child