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Seasonal Sensory Tips

How to navigate change, particularly all the sensory bombardment of the festive season, as an autistic person. NB: some tips are specific to parents but the majority are applicable to any autistic persons that resonate with the advice.

Tags: autism, neurodivergence, neurodivergent, autistic, #ActuallyAutistic, parent, parenting, pregnancy, maternity, newborn, transition, advocacy, maternal, antenatal

Christmas, Hanukkah or Yule- festivities or even the avoidance of said celebrations can present an extra burden to autistic people. Navigating changes to routine in more than a practical sense can add extra stress to the daily life of someone who is likely to be juggling coping mechanisms as a baseline. Add on lights, smells, busy bus stops, office parties, coughs and colds, itchy wool or unexpected 'merry' music... This time of year can be incredibly difficult if you're autistic or neurodivergent. Here at MARG our team of researchers, maternity professionals and one generous Occupational Therapist (our fantastic Moyna Tacler) are giving our best festive tips for avoiding overwhelming yourself.

This list isn't exhaustive and won't apply to everyone- if you have serious concerns please seek appropriate medical help.

Tip #1 - Food is food

For some of us it can be given so much extra meaning, expression or guilt at this time of year. For many of us, keeping a sustainably reliable intake of textures and flavours is what makes us tick along nicely. Don't let external pressures from family or society at large make you feel like your food choices are about anyone other than you! However, we do advise that current guidance on pregnancy-safe or breastfeeding-safe foods are followed for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

" Christmas dinner is whatever is serviced for that meal on 25th December, not some arbitrary roast" MARG member Kat Williams.

"Social occasions don't have to be meal-focused if that is challenging. Play a board game to be together and connect that way if that works better for your family" MARG chair Sara King.

Click here to see Moyna Tacler's video on 'Increased Sensory Challenges During Pregnancy for Autistic People'

Tip #2 - Plan to have no plans

Being autistic and/or a new parent means that self-care and self-preservation need serious thought and forward planning- which means it often gets relegated to the bottom of our to-do lists constantly. However, during the festive season, taking purposeful steps to look after ourselves can really help. If you have visitors, ensure you have time to yourself during the visit if needed. A gentle dog walk, or time in the kitchen with your favourite music can help reduce overwhelm. If you can't avoid certain social interactions then make sure you have exit strategies for yourself and family members. Try to find your social window tolerance- for some of us this is 20 minutes and for others it's 2 hours or more. Plan your visits around this and don't feel obliged to stay if you are tired. You can pre-prepare scripts to help you leave an event prior to going such as " I have to wrap gifts" or "I need time to rest". If you intend on staying home, you could write a schedule for the day for everyone so they know what is happening and when.

Tip #3 - Clothes are clothes

Give yourself permission to stay in comfy clothes. pyjamas and slippers can feel more comfortable than 'smart' clothing. Layering clothing will help you manage your temperature as you go in and out of warm or cold environments. Trial ear plugs like Calm, Flare or Loop to get used to the sensation beforehand. Sit under weighted blankets or layer unweighted throws during social times or anytime you need to enjoy your cocoon. Please do make sure you adhere medical advice on co-sleeping if this applies to you.

Tip #4 - Create your playlists

Create playlists of your favourite music, podcasts or nature sounds to help ground your sense of hearing. Don't be afraid to request gifts for your children are no-noise toys, buy no-bang crackers and prepare for the fireworks of New Year's Eve if you can.

Tip #5 - Edit your visual intake

If you have time to, use a day or two in advance of the festive season to tidy away clutter and plan where newly acquired gifts will go. Dim lights, reduce flashing or use a Smart bulb to adjust. Have black bin liners handy during present-giving periods to help tidying up go a bit quicker and reduce visual mess or clutter if that could lead you to overwhelm.

Tip #6 - Limit scents

Try to ask people don't buy you strongly scented candles or cosmetics in advance- if they do you could politely explain what this would mean for your sensory overwhelm or regift them in the future to non-autie friends. Try to stick to scents you like to support relaxation- sweet smells such as vanilla and lavender have been shown in research to reduce stress and anxiety.

Do Christmas YOUR way!

Lean in to the autistic ability to disregard social norms and self-regulate ourselves in our own way- for some of us it can be carefully-planned and paced celebrations and for others it's just a day in December. Whichever way you choose, stay true to yourself and stay well!

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