As my 3-year-old looked at her pile of Christmas presents and the group of relatives waiting expectantly for her to open them, she burst into tears and ran from the room.
Eating dinner with our extended family of 10 and opening gifts one by one as the others looked on were our family's treasured traditions, but they only made Katie miserable. The lights, laughter, crackling paper and festive music added up to sensory overload for my daughter with autism.
For kids with sensory sensitivities, travel, rich food, over- or under-activity and even hugs and faces of infrequently seen relatives can feel uncomfortable or actually painful. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the overload:
Before adjusting beloved traditions, let relatives know how the sensory din can grate on your child's nervous system. Explain that this causes irritation similar to what they might feel if trapped in a room with strobe lights and loud dance music while wearing an itchy wool sweater and eating lemons.
We used to fly five hours to meet relatives and then immediately drive with them another four hours to our holiday destination. After a trip ended with Katie screaming for an hour, we broke the journey into two days and traveled alone. Disappointing relatives is difficult, but I learned that accommodating extended family isn't as important as meeting our child's needs.
Do less each day
Can you schedule the fancy dinner on one day and gift-opening the next? It helped Katie if we unwrapped fewer gifts over several days rather than all in one sitting.
Provide familiar foods, preferred clothing and frequent calming breaks
Katie found sensory relief by swinging outside or reading a familiar book in a quiet room. If you cannot find a soothing break for your child, seek ideas from an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory integration.
These changes helped Katie and blessed the entire family. We realized that the sensory extravaganza of previous years actually diminished our joy over Jesus' birth. Katie's challenges reminded us that Christmas is not about ornaments, presents, food or family traditions. This freed us to appreciate God's incomparable gifts of eternal life, love, joy and peace.
Karen Crum is the author of Persevering Parent: Finding strength to raise your child with social, emotional or behavioral challenges.