Many people are unaware that sensory overload affects adults with autism as well as children. Adults can still experience anxiety, panic, even meltdowns when sensory stimuli becomes just too much. The holidays can be extremely difficult for children and adults with heightened sensitivities because the environment is so charged with sensory stimuli – malls are crowded, traffic is backed up, lights are twinkling, stores are noisy. The social anxiety that often accompanies autism can also make holiday office parties and family gatherings even more stressful.
Here’s how to cope:
First, know yourself and your limitations. Being aware of your sensory triggers will help you to avoid or minimize them in many situations. It’s also important to think about what soothes you. What makes you feel safe? What helps calm you? Where is your favorite “feel-good” place? These calming mechanisms can be used as a tool when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
If you have shopping to do, go at non-peak times – early in the morning or very late at night. Most stores have extended hours throughout the holiday season that makes this possible. Consider using Uber or public transportation to avoid the hassles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. If music calms you, listen to your own tracks through headphones or earbuds while you shop.
Think about where you’re going ahead of time. Is there a quiet bookstore or coffee shop nearby to offer a less stimulating environment if you get stressed? Eat before you leave or bring snacks with you. Everyone gets more stressed-out when they’re hungry! Plan for breaks and know when enough is enough. When you start to feel overwhelmed – STOP. Go home or to your soothing spot to reset.
Plan ahead – if you know the physical layout, identify a quiet room that you can go to when you get overstimulated. Be open with family and friends about how social situations make you feel. Is there a trusted sibling or friend that can be your “sensory coach” if things get overwhelming? Can you develop a cue or code for a break? If possible, take a walk outside when it gets to be too much. Set a time limit for the office party and try to stick to it. If you feel yourself shutting down or getting overwhelmed, take a break, go to a quiet spot or leave if you need to.
Let’s face it, we all get overwhelmed sometimes. Sensory overload happens to all of us – times when we feel we feel like we’re going to implode, explode or just need to shut down. During the holiday season, we all need to take a step back, be sensitive, take care of ourselves and take extra care of our loved ones and friends, especially those who have heightened sensitivities.