Every year come holiday time, I find out what will and will not work for decorating, the hard way. Some of you may assume that by now I should have this figured out; Well, I don’t, and here’s why…
Seeing the Whole Picture
Persons on the autism spectrum tend to see things in parts before they see the whole thing. For instance, a neurotypical person walks past a snowman and sees a snowman. Persons on the spectrum may first see a carrot, then sticks, then a hat, then a scarf, and then snowballs. Any given individual part may have them preoccupied before they take in the snowman as a whole, and see the actual snowman.
Those on the spectrum tend to be very literal thinkers. Using the snowman as an example again, my son walks past the snowman and sees a carrot. We eat carrots. Therefore, he would be inclined to grab the carrot and eat it because carrots are for eating. This obviously also plays back into the seeing parts of a whole object first.
Have you ever noticed that the majority of holiday decorations look like food? On the flip side, food items double as decorations around holiday time. How many Christmas tree ornaments do you have that look like candy or food items? We build gingerbread houses and gingerbread men that are made primarily for looks or to be eaten later. You can imagine how difficult this is to understand to the literal thinker.
Can you imagine how the literal thinker feels when he wakes up to see a tree in the living room?
Lights, Sparkles, Noise, & Music
Autism also causes individuals to process information from their senses differently than a neurotypical individual. Some, like my son, are diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD), in addition to an ASD diagnosis.
Often times, it is hard for those on the spectrum to filter out irrelevant noises such as the heater running, the refrigerator humming, or a light buzzing. You and I essentially block out these noises without even thinking about it, while others hear these things just as acutely as they hear the person standing in front of them speaking to them.
The same can be said of lights. A flickering fluorescent bulb may go unnoticed by you or me, but due to the way some individuals process information obtained through their senses, it can be an absolute overwhelming distraction.
This difference in processing applies to ALL of the basic senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. We all actually have a few more senses you may have never even heard of. They are a bit more advanced, and can also be effected in those with ASD and/or SPD; but we can discuss that another time.
Now, think about the holiday season in any given public area. You’ve got Christmas music coming from the speakers, people ringing bells, lights flashing, checkouts beeping, smells, people, glitter, textures, decorations, trees, etc., and this is all in addition to the usual hustle, bustle, and noise of public to begin with.
Seeking vs Avoiding
This overwhelm to the senses can cause many distinct and quite opposite reactions dependent upon the individual.
An avoider is going to be completely overwhelmed with all of the sensory input. They may find comfort in utilizing noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, and other tools or stims to soften the overwhelm to their senses.
A seeker (my son) is going to be overwhelmed as well, but in a different manner. The massive amount of input is going to trigger them to seek even more. In this case, they want to touch all the textures. They want to get very close to the lights. They want input of every kind, to include taste and touch. Therefore, they may be tempted to lick or taste things inappropriately, and touch anything they can get their hands on. They may even fall to the ground to look at something closer, and to feel the pressure of the ground. These situations usually cause a lot of stimming as well, as stimming helps them to feel regulated.
Now that I’ve delved into the basics above, I can share examples of how this all works for my son and my family.
We cannot put ornaments on the tree period. If we were to add some, they have to be the ones that do not shatter or break with no hooks, because they will not stay on the tree for long. No keepsake type ornaments for us.
Last year, garland was not an issue. This year, as you can see in photos, it was an issue. My son decided to pick the individual pieces off of the strand and give it a taste test. So, bye bye garland.
It helps to have a tree with built-in lights so that getting close to them and touching doesn’t lead to removing them.
My son likes to walk up to any given tree or wreath and run his cheek on it. It’s a texture thing.
He often sits on furniture near the tree and kicks it gently with his feet in order to feel the texture on his feet.
Any food looking decoration goes to his mouth, because to him food is food, not a decoration.
We decorate Christmas cookies with grandma every year around Christmastime. My son generally participates for a few minutes at most, and then is off to do his own thing. He sees the cookies and candy decorations and frosting as what they are individually, and would rather just eat whichever part he feels like eating at the time. Again, food is food to him, and not a decorative thing.
Any snowman decoration he sees, he tries to take the carrot nose off. The literal thinking again…
We cannot have presents under our tree until it is time to open them. It’s not that my son wants to open gifts. In fact, a lot of the time he could not care less about gifts. He sees the wrapped gifts as items. He wants to study the wrapping paper and study the boxes in general. If he were to open them, it would most likely be because he wants the boxes emptied so he can put things in them or sit in them.
You have to understand that it is not that he doesn’t understand. When told to not touch something or not do something. He generally listens quite well; but when left to his own devices, he sees and processes the world so much differently than you or me. He is not being intentionally naughty or destructive. He is living in a world we cannot fully understand.
So why are some things okay to decorate with some years and then not others? The answer to that is that I do not actually know. As my son grows, develops, and learns to cope with and regulate sensory input and overwhelm, things change often; sometimes even day to day. He may see a lot of development in one area but see a regression in another, but then it will all level out later.
How does my son handle sensory overload during the holidays? Just as I described when describing a “seeker” above, which is how he handles sensory overload at any time. His stims include both vocal and physical stims. He likes to make different pitched vocalizations, as well as sometimes scream. He likes to wave his hand and wiggle his fingers in front of his face, almost like he is waving. He touches all the things; not only with his hands, but with any part of his body he thinks will feel good. He will sometimes spin. He likes to be in tight spaces. He will back himself into corners. He will sometimes physically prompt me to squeeze his arms or shoulders. Most of all, he likes to jump, jump, jump. What people fail to realize, is that he is doing these things to try to regulate…AKA feel “normal” and not overwhelmed.
Understanding & Acceptance
Looking at my son, it may not be immediately evident that he is “different”. We are often in situations where outsiders just do not understand. That’s why I am here. I am learning every single day, and do my best to share what I learn so that we can all be a little more familiar and aware of differences, as well as have some understanding.
My extended family has had to learn that some events and situations are just not feasible for our little family. I am all about family time, but on a more personal and smaller basis. Big gatherings, especially in unfamiliar places, are really hard for us. That’s why we try to do our best to see individual family units, within our extended family, when we can. This is not to say that we do not ever attend big family events or gatherings. It’s just that we have to pick and choose wisely to ensure a positive and safe experience for all involved.
You want to know who the most understanding person in our lives is? My 5-year-old daughter, who is just one year older than her brother.
Our Christmas tree is kind of a wreck now. The garland is off. There are no ornaments. It’s crooked. The star on top is cocked to one side. Do you know what my daughter had to say about it? “That’s okay, mommy. It’s still pretty with just the star on top.”
She makes ornaments and decorations at school, and when she brings them home we have special and safe, albeit untraditional, places we display them. She has never once complained about this. She understands. While it may not always seem like it or feel like it, my daughter is going to have a huge advantage in life. That advantage being that she understands differences, and will have a very healthy dose of compassion for all of humankind.
One thing we can all appreciate (I know I sure do!) about the different and literal thinkers in our lives is that they look to the simple things to make them happy. My son is a reminder that the holidays are not about decorations and food. The holidays are about JESUS, and everything HE stands for, to include: compassion, acceptance, inclusion, forgiveness, family, and LOVE.
Blessings from my family to yours.