The holidays can be hard when you have certain sensory sensitivities. Perhaps, you dislike crowds, certain potent holiday smells, loud noises, flashing lights, or itchy holiday sweaters. Whatever your sensory sensitivities may be, the holidays seem to make them worse. In fact, you to teeter on the brink of an autism meltdown from Halloween through New Year’s Day.
As autism therapists, we know this time of year can be challenging for individuals on the spectrum. Perhaps, you’ve tried to push away your discomfort and go along with the flow to please others. But it’s not working, your discomfort is growing more unbearable by the day. We do not want you to go through this season feeling uncomfortable instead, we want you to identify your sensory needs and advocate for yourself. That’s why we’re offering you some tips on ways you can cope with sensory sensitivities during the holiday season.
Ignoring Sensory Sensitivities
It’s very common for individuals who identify as neurodivergent to ignore their sensory sensitivities. But, there is a good reason for this. In the past when they felt sensory overload, others invalidated them by saying “Stop being so sensitive”, “You’re so dramatic”, “Stop overreacting”. It’s incredibly hurtful to hear these kinds of messages. To avoid getting hurt again, an autistic person might just try to suck it up and go along with things even if they start to feel overwhelming. They try to ignore their inner cues of sensory overwhelm in hopes they will fit in and avoid getting criticized or invalidated by others.
If you have had similar experiences then you likely know the pain and frustration that comes from others dismissing your feelings or criticizing you for having sensory sensitivities. And, I would imagine that after a while you got used to others invalidating your needs and you became conditioned to push them away to avoid this hurt.
As an adult, this may translate into feeling like you just have to deal with your discomfort and ignore it. Or maybe, you isolate yourself from others to prevent your sensory sensitivities from becoming an issue in the first place. But if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing it’s not working out very well. You’ve realized it’s time to make a change so you can actually enjoy the holiday season.
Identifying Your Sensory Sensitivities
At my California autism therapy practice, we talk a lot about being self-aware and identifying your needs. When you spend all day masking your autism traits and hiding these sensory sensitivities, you’re not really identifying what they are in the first place or what you need to make them less bothersome.
But here’s the thing when you don’t know what your needs are, or you simply ignore them, you won’t get them met. Furthermore, you’re more likely to become overwhelmed and experience an autism meltdown or burnout.
Here are some tips for identifying your needs:
- Think back to times when you’ve felt overwhelmed by your sensory-wise
- This may look like exhaustion, fidgeting, stemming, or feelings of panic (heart racing, sweating, shortness of breath)
- Ask yourself what triggered it and make a list of these things
- Then, think about what you need instead (a quiet space, dim lighting, fewer crowds) and make a list
Dealing with Sensory Sensitivities During the Holiday Season
I realize that avoiding the things that cause you sensory discomfort is unlikely, especially during the holidays. That’s why I want to offer you some tips for ways you can cope when you’re overwhelmed in the moment.
Offer a mini-disclosure
I talk a lot about mini-disclosures in my blogs because they are an important way to communicate your needs with others to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
If you don’t know what a mini-disclosure is, then let me explain:
When you need some time to recharge your social battery and deal with your sensory needs, it’s a good idea to be transparent with those around you. We do this by giving a mini-disclosure. If you don’t your actions could upset the other people involved and they may misinterpret this as being rude. So instead, talk to them about what’s going on. We recommend doing this in four steps:
- I need to leave the room, go outside, sit in the car, etc.
Step 2: Explain what this behavior actually means
- I need to do this because I am feeling very overwhelmed right now and these lights are bothering me
Step 3: Request Support
- I need you to give me a few minutes, but please text me if you need me to come back quickly
Step 4: Share what you value about your relationship and this interaction
- I appreciate our relationship and am grateful for your kindness and support.
Find Ways to Excuse Yourself from the Situation Causing You Distress4:
Inevitably you will be in a situation where you experience sensory sensitivities. Therefore it’s important to brainstorm ways to remove yourself from the situation so you can take care of your needs.
This will look different for everyone and every situation. However, some things you can consider include excusing yourself to the restroom and taking some deep breaths, going outside for some fresh air, offering to do the dishes or take out the trash, and finding a quiet room to use a fidget toy.
Make a plan ahead of time so you’ll know what to do when you do begin to feel discomfort. Then, give yourself permission to execute this plan. Remember, even with the holiday craziness, caring for your needs is very important.
Set Boundaries and Remember You Have Options
Holiday get-togethers are an important part of the holiday season. But if they cause you to experience sensory distress, it’s important to set some boundaries around your participation. You do not have to participate in every event or stay the whole time. You have options! Allow yourself to use them and don’t feel like you have to ignore your needs to please others. That’s often a recipe for disaster.
Instead, find a middle ground and communicate with others. For example, say you have a partner who has a holiday party coming up. You know you will likely experience sensory discomfort, but you want to support them and show up for the party. So ask yourself and your partner what are the most important things you need to do at this event. Maybe, it’s saying hello to their boss or sitting with them next to dinner. Or maybe it’s just stopping by to say hi. Once you’ve identified these things you can make a plan to prioritize them and possibly excuse yourself from the rest or find a quiet place to relax.
I know the holidays can be tough when you have sensory sensitivities, so I hope you find these tips useful. If you’re looking for further support, contact our California autism therapy clinic to learn about our individual, group, and family therapy services. We would be honored to help support you, your child, or your family. To begin online autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consult.
- Like us on Facebook to stay updated on our practice.
- Sign up for our newsletter.
Or… Take an Autism E-Course
If you are not in California but are wanting support as an autistic individual or parent, there are options for you! Consider our sister website, Neurodiversity School. Check it out if you want to join an online community of neurodivergent peers. To get started, follow the following steps:
- Sign up for our newsletter
- Check your inbox for more information
- When the website launches, take the quiz and find out what course is right for you or your loved one!
Other Options at Open Doors Therapy for Individuals with Autism:
Our Palo Alto, CA-based Autism Therapy Clinic serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. More specifically, our therapists support those who identify as high functioning, having Aspergers, and ASD traits. We are also proud to offer support to the families of those with an autism spectrum disorder.
Currently, our services are exclusively offered through online therapy in California. Our services cover a wide range of challenges that individuals on the autism spectrum might experience. Our skilled autism therapists specialize in individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, group therapy, and countless social skills groups! Right now, we have groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, teens & caregivers, and gifted youth & caregivers. We also offer social skills groups for neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a mothers group, and a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college. Reach out to us for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.