Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., BCCC, Certified Autism Specialist
We have all heard the expression the “sights and sounds” of Christmas. When I think of the Christmas season, I think about love, laughter, hugs, family gatherings, buying gifts, decorating, food, Christmas lights, and all the sights and sounds and aromas of Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, of course, Christmas is about the birth of our Savior and He is the “Reason for the Season,” but there are a many components to the Christmas season that are very, very sensory related. This can be problematic for your client…or your child…who is on the Autism Spectrum or has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
Sensory Aversive or Sensory Seeking?
Sensory issues are complex and this simple definition does not do the issue justice, but sensory stimuli enter through our five senses, and, for those who have sensory processing issues, their brains do not process the information the same way the neuro-typical brain does. I call this the problem of “too.” Sensory issues are real to ASD/SPD persons—they are not just making it up to be difficult.
As my daughter would commonly say, that is “too loud” or “too bright” or “too scratchy” or “too spicy” or “too” something. Sensory issues have two broad categories with many subcategories, but a person diagnosed with a sensory issue can be sensory aversive or sensory seeking. The aversive person is the person that will tend to use the word “too.” That new sweater grandma gave me is “too itchy” or “too lacy” or “too red” or that new hair bow hurts my head or that food is “too spicy.”
As a parent, until I understood the complexities of sensory issues I thought, “Man she complains about everything! She has to be one of the most ungrateful children on the planet.” There is a sensory seeking side as well. The sensory seeker loves to feel things, touch it all, see the bright lights and is enticed by sensory overload, but this overload then is followed by hyperactivity or a sensory crash. So one child who is aversive may hate going to see the Christmas lights, talking to Santa, or being in a mall with throngs of people, while the sensory seeking child gets completely energized and hyperactive in the same situation.
It’s All About the Brain
Two of the brain-based issues at work here are the corpus callosum and the amygdala. In the ASD brain, the amygdala is 15 to 20% larger than average. In simple terms, this part of the brain sizes up what is a threat and is involved in “fight or flight.” Part of the issue with sensory integration is that the amygdala sizes up many sensory things as a “threat,” which causes the person to go into fight or flight. To the average on-looker, this often appears as a tantrum or a “fussy child.”
The corpus callosum is smaller in the ASD brain. A 2006 TIME magazine article reports, “The ASD corpus callosum works more like an improve jam session instead of a beautiful orchestra.” So sensations are not always accurately communicated across the brain hemispheres. One of best the ways to help ASD/SPD clients is by teaching them to regulate sensory issues. When a child with sensory issues is over-stimulated, there will be meltdowns, crankiness, irritability, anxiety, or ADHD-type behaviors. This time of year can really seem to turn your ASD/SPD client, or child, into the Grinch!
Easy Preventative Measures
I like to say to be preventative and creative. First, assess what things tend to trigger the child. Work with the family to help them take some of the following actions. If the lights are too bright at the Christmas light show, the parents can let their child take some shades. If the sounds are an issue, parents can take some ear muffs and a device that plays music the child like. Parents can talk to relatives ahead of time about gifts for the child to avoid embarrassing moments. Parents can explain the sensory issues and give some appropriate gift ideas. It is also important to practice with the child what is the appropriate thing to say or do if offered a food or gift they do not like.
If hugs are an issue and the parents know that Aunt Helen loves those hugs and kisses, talk with the child about what they might feel is an okay greeting—one hug, an air hug, a hand shake, etc. Encourage the parents to explain to the “touch feely” aunt this is the way she can express a greeting, and that “squeezy” hugs or a dozen kisses are going to cause an issue.
One of the best resources for an ASD/SPD child is a great Occupational Therapist (OT). OT’s are experts in helping you assess the exact sensory issues and how to better regulate them. Sensory issues and how to manage them can be a huge key to the child’s success.
If you are looking for further educational resources, take a look at this free video, created by two young men with Asperger’s. From their own experience, they explain the number one thing we can do to help those on the spectrum. Hint? Help them regulate those sensory issues! After Christmas, we head into New Year’s Parties and then Valentines! There is always a sensory overload holiday right around every corner, but as a Christian counselor, you can make a difference.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister and Licensed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists and was formerly an LPC in North Carolina. She is a Board Certified Christian Counselor through the AACC’s Board of Christian Professional and Pastoral Counselors and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She began to change her focus to the world of IEPs and 504 educational plans and understand how to help special needs students in the classroom. In addition, she also helps families deal with their frustrations and challenges having a special needs child. Stephanie practices counseling at her home church, Calvary Atlanta, and advocates for special needs families.