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Comfort & Joy: Swaddling the Holidays for My Sensory-Challenged Child

When Lee was diagnosed with ADHD and sensory processing disorder at the age of 6, I found a new way to approach the holidays. I boxed up all of my old expectations of how a child should behave, I sealed it shut, wrapped it, and kicked it down the road.

Silver Bells jingled from the speakers while my sister-in-law squeezed around our noisy family, trying to maneuver apple pie into the oven. Glittering tree lights flickered in my eyes, but beyond them I caught sight of a still figure standing in the corner holding a fuzzy blanket. The wave was subtle, but I could feel Lee’s anxiety, like electricity, traveling between us. Everything that made Christmas Eve magical for me sent Lee spinning out of control into sensory meltdown. And it was happening again.

Now that my child is 20, we have learned ways to cope. When family chatter and music swell, when tree bulbs twinkle in rapid cycles, and when shiny presents beckon to be opened, Lee now knows to escape. She slips away to a couch in a dark, empty room, using headphones to block all sound and a fuzzy blanket for deep compression. Only quiet eases her overloaded senses, and now she knows how to find it anywhere.

This was not always the case. During Lee’s earliest Christmas celebrations, we found the sparkling, crunchy paper with a silvery bow was often more fun than the present within. Toys, even the ones that topped her wish list, lay forgotten and discarded. On more than one occasion, Lee barricaded herself in the biggest packing box and hid in the darkest corner, under a pile of wrapping paper.

When it came time for the Christmas Eve party at my in-laws’ house, I wanted her to act “normal.” But when Lee toddled into a house filled with relatives, more gifts, and loud laughter, she took off at a run and accidents followed. I cringed as she crashed into furniture, dove into her grandparents’ laps, and threw ribbon over our heads. Keeping a smile plastered on my face, I pretended Lee was just like her cousins, which made me feel like a complete failure as a parent.

When Lee was diagnosed with ADHD and sensory processing disorder at the age of 6, I found a new way to approach the holidays. I boxed up all of my old expectations of how a child should behave, I sealed it shut, wrapped it, and kicked it down the road. It was time to create a whole new Christmas.

[Click to Read: Minimize Holiday Havoc with These ADHD-Friendly Strategies]

Starting with the knowledge that Lee’s brain hated change and needed transition, we slowed down the holiday’s tempo. We built in peaceful moments so Lee could better adjust to a new environment. On Christmas morning, this meant allowing for lots of time to play with wrapping paper and boxes. I told our relatives in advance to give Lee toys that were tailored to her urges for touch or movement.

As I dressed her to go for our family celebration, I chose clothing that had been worn before – nothing new, scratchy, or tight. We arrived late, and planned to leave early. The less time spent in sensory overload, the better. After the presents were opened, I made sure she went outside and did some spins and jumps to help with hyperactivity. As we sat for our Christmas dinner, which could go on for hours, I kept fidget toys and a sketchpad nearby to keep her calm.

Throughout the day, I gave Lee quiet breaks from all the festivity. Walking with her down the hall to the back of the house, we would sneak into an empty room. I would take her in my arms and rock her until her breathing was even.

“Hey, Mom. Want a piece of pie?” Lee’s adult voice brought me back. I looked into those wide hazel eyes I loved, calm now and steady. None of the carols, Christmas lights, or holly could match the magic in this moment.

Sensory Overload at the Holidays: Next Steps


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Updated on July 19, 2021

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