DR RADICA MAHASE
“I dread the Christmas holidays. My daughter is nine years old. She was diagnosed with autism at age three and she always has a rough time at Christmas. She loves to go out and we would usually take her to the malls throughout the year but at Christmas time we can’t go to the malls. She has serious sensory issues and she can handle normal levels of noises and lights. But at Christmas time the malls are decorated and there are more lights. They are crowded and noisier than usual.
"But what’s even worse is, my daughter is scared of Santa and even the sight of his face on shopping bags and gift papers, much less the decorations, will get her agitated. The sight of Santa himself can trigger a meltdown.
"The worst part, though, is the judgmental stares of people when she gets a meltdown. Last year one woman once came up to me and told me that I need to teach my child to behave better in public.
"After that we just stay at home and wait for Christmas to finish and life to go back to normal.”
Christmas is one of the biggest festive times in TT and the majority of the population, regardless of ethnicity and religious persuasion, participates in one way or another. It is a time for parties and liming, and for the kids it’s all about Santa’s visit and presents.
For some children with autism and other special needs, as well as their families, it can just be overwhelming.
Christmas is all about music and food and people getting together to celebrate. In the mind of many individuals with autism, this is translated as too much noise, too many lights, too many people, too much smells.
Unfortunately, too many different things can lead to sensory overload for an individual with autism (both children and adults). In sensory overload, is when one of more body senses experiences overstimulation from the environment. For individuals with autism, environmental factors are usually noise, lights, smells – all of the things that Christmas represents.
Parents/caregivers usually know the best ways for their children to spend the Christmas season. Many know that if they try to break their child’s routine too drastically, the child might not respond too well. Many don’t force their children to visit relatives or places where they are not comfortable; they ensure that their children have food that they are familiar with (don’t force them to eat new food because it’s Christmas time!) They choose quieter, more sensory-friendly public places to take their children. Generally parents/caregivers try to reduce the stress for their children as much as possible because they know what their children can and cannot handle.
Fortunately, with a little conscious effort, the wider society can also make the Christmas season a little more inclusive for those individuals who may not be able to participate in the full Trinbagonian Christmas experience. Here are just a few suggestions:
Sensory Santa – Shopping malls can have a separate event where kids with special needs can visit Santa in a quieter spot without having to wait in long lines. (Check C3 Centre for its Sensory Santa event for any individual with any special needs, December 17 from 1-3 pm).
Christmas parties – At this time of the year various institutions, individuals and organisations organise Christmas treats for children. We can include those with special needs by inviting them to come before or after the event, when it is quieter and the lines to get a present from Santa are not too long.
Christmas presents – Give sensory-friendly presents that an individual with autism will actually be interested in. So many bigger Christmas drives organised by MPs' offices, etc, tend to give generic presents such as trucks and cars and dolls and teasets.
While neurotypical children will appreciate these and will be very happy with these, many of the children with autism might not be interested. Educational gifts can be more stimulating to a child with autism. Presents such as puzzles, picture books, sound books, stress balls, will stimulate a child with autism.
Aside from the liming, the deeper message of Christmas is one of love and kindness. With this in mind, Christmas seems the best time to include those with special needs in every way possible.
Dr Radica Mahase is founder/director, Support Autism T&T