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An Inside Look at Our Family’s Sensory-Friendly Holiday Season

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When you have a child with sensory issues, the holidays can bring added anxiety. You must tread very carefully through this holiday season. Everything associated with the holidays bursts with overstimulation — lights, music, crowded family get-togethers, bells jingling, Santa ho-ho-ho-ing… all of this going on at once is enough to give anybody a headache. So imagine a poor child who struggles with making sense of her senses on a normal day, and drop her right in the middle of this holiday hustle and bustle…

This holiday season lasts far longer than just one day. And it is your job, as the parent of an easily overstimulated child, to chart the course through this season carefully and methodically. What makes this task more difficult is that this Christmas season comes hot off the heels of Halloween and Thanksgiving — two other times of year that cause a frenzy for our senses. After itchy costumes and candy binges come loud feasts and a confusing mix of smells of various foods cooking at once. As soon as we recover from one holiday, the next one is right behind it.

So here is how we spend the holidays in my house — in the most sensory-friendly way.

1. Parades: We don’t do them. At all. Not in person and not even on TV. My daughter has been to a parade and hates them for obvious reasons. Even the mere sight of one on TV sends her running into another room. This year we graduated to being able to leave the Thanksgiving parade on as long as the sound was turned off. She still hid in the other room, only appearing when we told her something she liked was on. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is one of my favorite parts of any holiday, but for the sake of sanity in my house, I can live without it.

2. Our picture with Santa: I’ve tried twice and failed miserably, my child screaming so uncontrollably that even Santa looked annoyed and we had to walk away. You would think he’d be used to that sort of thing, given that most kids find him frightening, but obviously Santa’s had limited experience with a sensory meltdown that makes the screams of an average child sound like a soothing lullaby.

We’ve made progress in the last year due to a little bit of maturity mixed with the knowledge that Santa is the one who brings presents. For that reason alone, he is worth getting close to. So last year, my daughter stood next to him and took a picture. She was proud as could be! And so was I!

3. Lights, carolers, crowds… not for us. The annual town tree lighting is another thing we avoid. I asked this year if it was something she might like to do and she politely said, “No, thank you.” And I completely respect that. What we will do is drive around town pointing out our favorite holiday decorations while listening to Christmas music in the car. The excitement in my daughter’s voice as she shouts, “Hey, look at that… it’s awesome!” is one of the best parts of my holiday season and is one of the things I look forward to the most each year.

4. I can guarantee Christmas Day at my mother’s house will inevitably result in at least one major meltdown, usually when the chaos of four little girls opening gifts in a crowded room becomes too much for my daughter to handle. One of my nieces will get a gift my daughter did not, and that tiny inconsistency will be the tip of the sensory iceberg, sending her into an instantaneous fit. To the average spectator, it might look like a spoiled child not getting what she wants. But we know it’s the sign that she’s simply had enough.

Having a successful holiday in my house has been and continues to be a work in progress. When I first realized we couldn’t take part in “normal” holiday traditions, I was sad and  disappointed. Now, I realize that in the wake of participating in these traditions with the masses, our own holiday traditions have been born. We may not ever get to Rockefeller Center to see the tree, but we spend a quiet day at home decorating our own tree and building a gingerbread house while Christmas music plays in the background. We bake cookies and pick spots for our favorite ornaments, most of which symbolize a significant moment in the life of our family. It has become a day I enjoy more than the actual holiday itself.

We may not be able to watch movies like “The Polar Express” or “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” but we have the books, and we will read them in my bed repeatedly all the nights leading up to Christmas. And while it has taken me many Christmases to shift my thinking from what I expected my holidays to be to what they actually are, I’ve realized now what the holiday season is really about: my family.

I am the frazzled, tired mother of two beautiful little girls, and my days are filled with chores, errands, appointments and play dates. My husband works two jobs and has one day off a week, so we are without him more than we are with him. And in having to celebrate our holidays on a smaller scale due to my daughter’s sensory issues, we are given the greatest and most important gift the holidays can give us: time together, just the four of us. This is something we don’t have nearly enough of and something I’m truly grateful for.

So this year, I look forward to our quiet holiday traditions we only share with each other, and I hope that they are traditions that will influence the way my girls celebrate the holidays when they have their own families someday.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and not-so-stressful holiday and all the best in the New Year. May you be as lucky as I am to have time with the ones you love.

Follow this journey on My Sensational Girl.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness during the holidays. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: December 9, 2015
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