Sensory friendly Christmas

Sensory Friendly Christmas

If your special needs family is anything like mine, you are likely facing the same or similar dilemma as the Lost and Tired family is. That dilemma is what to do for the holidays. For many families, what to do for the holidays is a relatively simple task.

For the Lost and Tired family, we have a much more difficult and complicate task of trying a provide a sensory friendly Christmas. What is a sensory friendly Christmas?  

Well, that’s actually a very good question and one I’m not sure I have the answer to. Essentially, a sensory friendly Christmas is one that does not cause or at least attempts to prevent overstimulation. This is not an easy task, especially if you have multiple kids on the Autism Spectrum with some type of SPD (sensory processing disorder).

Rather than try to explain what SPD is, I found this video on YouTube, and I think this person does a really good job of helping others to better understand what sensory overload and overstimulation actually is.

[youtube width=”720″ height=”480″][/youtube]

Why is Christmas overstimulating?

This is yet another complicated question to answer. Ultimately, that answer can and will vary from child to child, person to person and family to family. However, while people react differently to stimulation, the basic premise is pretty much a universal one.

So, why is Christmas overstimulating?

In my experience with my wife and 3 boys on the Autism Spectrum, certain things stand out as triggers for sensory overload. Things like large crowds of people, noisy environments, bright or flashing lights, certain fragrances and the big one for the Christmas holiday, receiving and opening presents.  These are just a few examples of triggers I have identified for my family, yours may be different.

To those, less experienced with adults and especially children with Autism, most of this list might already make sense. However, some might be wondering why receiving and opening presents would be overstimulating?

The answer to that question, fortunately, is easy and can be answered in one word……anticipation.

For the Lost and Tired family, anticipation is one of our worst enemies-for lack of a better word-. The reason for that is because, like many Autistic kids, my 3 boys need predictability and are very much in need of instant gratification.

For example, if we go to see family on Christmas day, the boys will see the presents under the tree as soon as they walk in the door. They know that some of those presents might be their’s. They also know that they might be opening those presents, however, they don’t know for sure and they also don’t know when. They are left to anticipate something that may or may not happen. This anticipation quickly turns into anxiety and the anxiety will eventually lead to meltdowns.

Put very simply:   Christmas ——-> Anticipation ——-> Anxiety ——-> Meltdowns

How to have a sensory friendly Christmas

Again, I don’t presume to know what is best for your child or family but I can share with you what the Lost and Tired family has done to attempt a sensory friendly Christmas. Remember, the keyword here is attempt. Something else to keep in mind is that this may require significant sacrifice on your part.

Having said the above, here is what we are doing in the Lost and Tired household for the 2011 holiday season.

We have opted to stay at home. This is really the biggest sacrifice because we have a large extended family and fun, festive gatherings. Most of our family is very understanding with the boys, however, the very nature of the large family gathering’s is counterintuitive to the whole sensory friendly Christmas. No matter how understanding and supportive everyone is, there are simply to many people and far to much noise.

We have made the choice to teach our boys new traditions so that we have our own special Christmas stuff. We have also decided to invite people in smaller groups to stop by our house over the Christmas holiday. They can bring the presents they would like to bring for the boys then. That way, the boys can open them right away and there is much less anxiety.

The other thing we have done is work with Santa Clause very, very closely when it comes to presents for the boys. We made sure to let Santa know that we need three of everything. For example: if the boys get a stuffed animal as a gift, they will each get the exact same thing. This prevents fighting over the size, shape or color of something, further reducing the anxiety. This actually works out pretty well because the boys are all into the same things.

We also use white LED lights on the Christmas Tree. They don’t flash and they don’t make noise. This has helped to reduce some of the sensory related problems as well. The house is not really decorated either. I personally love to decorate our house for Christmas, as it always puts me in a good mood. However, having the house filled with bright, colorful things has proven to overwhelm at least some of my boys. As much as I hate to cut the decorations out, it’s for the best.

As you can see, there is a great deal of sacrifice required on our part to help our boys survive the Christmas holiday.

When it’s all said and done

Some might say that we have ruined Christmas for the boys but those people simply don’t get it. 

The simple truth is that nothing about this is simple. Sure, we could go to the parties and do all the typical Christmas stuff. However, if we didn’t take these measures, the boys would end up completely overwhelmed and miserable. That in turn would lead to screaming, crying and meltdowns. How is that a good thing? The question we have to ask ourselves is, does the end justify the means? In this case, to us, it absolutely does.

We have chosen to celebrate Christmas in a way that works best for our family. We focus less on the glitz and glamour and instead concentrate on the simple things that make Christmas special. This allows the boys to have a much better experience and that in turn, makes life better for everyone in the Lost and Tired house.

Again, this is what we have done to survive the holidays. I’m not suggesting that you should do this, however, if you have found yourself in a similar situation and are looking for options, maybe this could help. Of course, your mileage will vary but I suppose you could simply use this a general guide to helping your kids experience a sensory friendly holiday.


If you liked this post I would encourage you to also read the following: (please feel free to share this)

10 Things My Autistic Kids Wished You Knew

How YOU could help a Special Needs Parent

My Broken Heart


Rob Gorski

Full time, work from home single Dad to my 3 amazing boys. Oh...and creator fo this blog. :-)
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What a wonderful post. I plan on sharing it with my community — The Sensory Spectrum — next week. Keep up the good writing. Jennifer

Autism Proud

Thank you for this post! We are struggling with this holiday season and your post really helped me. I will definitely be sharing. I pray this holiday season finds you with endless blessings and much joy.


I think your idea is absolutely wonderful! Although we don't have the same issues as in your house, we too have cut down our holiday madness a bit. Such as for Thanksgiving. This year we decided to forget about all that running around, noise, chaos, etc…Mike, myself and Sayge went to eat at Golden Coral! In all honesty, as much as I love our families, it made the holiday so much better! People tend to get too wrapped up that you must spend holidays with family blah blah blah…the way I look at it is this way, my immediate family becomes my husband and children and grandchildren those are the only ones that I feel I need to be with to make the holiday complete. 🙂 I love you guys! Can't wait to give my nephews their presents so I can see them smile and get lots of hugs 🙂 LOL


I love this post! Everyone can benefit from this information…families with newly diagnosed kiddos who haven't thought about environmental impact on autism, the general public, AND long-timers who may have forgotten about these triggers. The anticipation makes Sage just beside himself from mid-October to, well, Christmas. We ALL feel these effects. We do the same as you, modify our environment and choose activities wisely, but even then, unplanned events sometimes happen. The great thing is, when we clear our kids' plates from all of the over-stimulating, anxiety triggering madness, they seem to be better able to handle a wrench or two being thrown in (..two is the limit though for us;). Again, great post.
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Have you used visual schedules Rob? If you were attempting a family gathering it could alleviate some of the anticipation of present opening if they know when it’s going to occur. Something simple like “say hello —> eat lunch —> open presents” or whatever the order is. You could even specify the number of presents they’ll be opening if people let you know in advance.



That's a really good idea. We do that verbally now, especially with Emmett. It's the only thing that has ever worked well with him. The real problem right now is Gavin. He's not exactly stable at the moment and has run out of medication options for the schizoaffective disorder. If he has another psychotic break, we are out of ways to manage this at home.

We have been advised to impose a very strict sensory diet for him.

The other boys might do very well with your suggestion. Thank you once again for sharing your wisdom. 🙂 I hope you have a great holiday.


Hi Rob,

Glad you think it might help, we find that even our very high functioning kids or kids that are quite anxious can be reassured by the security of a visual or written schedule. I hope you're able to keep Gavin relatively grounded during the holiday period, a quiet family Christmas is certainly worth it to keep him lucid.