Holidays and celebrations, like Easter, Thanksgiving, and birthdays, should be a happy time in families. When I think back to those days of celebration, when our children were growing up, the memories I have are not at all happy ones. Unfortunately holidays are often very stressful for many families of children with special needs like autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette syndrome, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, etc. Why do these kids with challenging needs hate almost everything about family gatherings associated with celebrating holidays and birthdays?
Holiday celebrations often involve a change in routine, large family gatherings, special foods, decorations, and new or special clothes to mark the event. Often it means attending an invent in an unfamiliar place where everything from the car ride there and back, to the lighting, smells, and sounds trigger your child’s sensitive senses.
Stress and anxiety can be seen in the days leading up to the holiday, during and for days after. You owe it to your child and your own family to find solutions even if it means a change in traditional ways of celebrating. Perhaps spending the day alone with your own family in an uncrowded area is the best thing for you… while you create your own holiday traditions.
If I had known what I know now about my child’s sensory issues and Tourette syndrome we surely would have done things differently. One of our daughters was only diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and co-existing conditions when she was in university; therefore, we did not understand the daily struggles she faced during childhood and her teen years. Thirty years ago Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) was not talked about, not written about and certainly could not be goggled, tweeted, and discussed on Facebook. Families raising children with special needs now have a wealth of information at the click of a mouse.
[picture: my oldest, now an adult with a special child of her own…]
Parents of Children with Special Needs:
Can YOU Relate to OUR Holiday Story?
Large Family Gatherings
Being the oldest one of our family and having a huge kitchen, it always fell on my shoulders to welcome relatives and share a meal for these occasions. So this scenario has many reruns with a few different scenes and endings. However, in retrospect, the main theme was always the “Perfect Storm” for a highly sensitive child.
Wearing “Sunday Best’
Let’s walk through a typical ‘special day’ of celebration and all the causes of sensory overload. In our home, we would all rush about to get ready to attend a church service. Like was the tradition back then, going to church meant wearing your ‘Sunday Best’. To a sensitive child that meant stiff, itchy, ready to scream uncomfortable clothes and shoes!
So some sounds are hard to endure for these children. To her, the high pitched voice of the choir member singing the solos was like the screech of a nail on a blackboard. And did I mention the church bells, especially the smaller ones that ping, ding and dong during the service. Now let’s listen to the human noises that make this poor child shiver in her black patent leather shoes with the tight little straps. Coughing, sneezing, blowing noses…what torture for a sensitive child to be surrounded by such noises.
Special occasions in church come with huge, colorful, flower arrangements. To a sensitive nose the mixture of the sent of flowers, ladies’ perfumes, men’s aftershave, leather coats and burning candles all make for a nauseated feeling accompanied by an awful headache.
To this child who does not want to bring attention to herself in any circumstances, walking up the church aisle, going to communion and greeting the other church goers after the service must have been her own little crucifixion. And added to that were the photo taking sessions at home, the gift unwrapping done one by one while all the others watch, the endless questions by well meaning relatives and the requests to play the piano for the ‘happy gang’.
Finally it is time to eat. Table is nicely set, guests are seated, food is plated and begins another round of agony for the sensitive one to sit through.
The Last Straw
The oldest member of the relatives is deaf and very set in his ways. The preparation of his cup of tea is another irritation for the one sensitive to high pitched sounds. With his spoon, he mixes his sugar while all the while tapping the sides of his cup…he cannot hear well so the tapping changes to bagging the sides. This is the last straw for the poor child who has kept everything in for much too long, a vocal tic like the barking of a dog is heard. The table guests become all quiet and my deaf, too old to have figured it out but who had heard the high pitched bark, father-in-law says: “ Since when do you have a dog?”
Pain written on her face, she gets up and escapes to her room. With a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes and a vice-grip squeezing my heart, I try to make light of the situation. I connect to my robot mode to continue my role as host of another ‘special day’ that we should have celebrated differently—if I had only known.
For all those who understand Sensory Processing Disorder, what accommodations do you make for your special child on these special days?