Meltdown-Proofing the Busiest Weeks of the Year

With all the meltdown triggers in the world, the common element is stress: stress of unfamiliar situations, stress of physical discomfort, stress of unreasonable demands, stress of overload. Even minor stresses, when they pile up for too long, can trigger a meltdown explosion when “one more little thing” happens—as with the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

And you don’t have to be autistic, or under kindergarten age, to “melt down”: no one is 100 percent immune. The worst-case-scenario is when it starts with one member of a family group, and sets off a chain reaction with everybody screaming at everybody else.

Happy Holidays?

All of which leaves many parents dreading “the most wonderful time of the year”—the December holiday season. Between shopping, decorating, cooking, special events, and travel arrangements, December is also among the busiest times of the year. And busyness generates hurry and clutter, which generate extra stress. Even in below-freezing weather, the best of us can get hot under the collar.

Young girl pouting in front of Christmas tree
Young girl pouting in front of Christmas tree

All too often, we invite even more stress into the mix by:

  • Insisting on the most elaborate decorations and recipes, at any cost in time or money
  • Cramming our schedules for multiple days in a row
  • Sending cards to every distant relative and casual acquaintance
  • Spending too much on gifts because we “don’t want to look cheap”
  • Scolding family members for “having no holiday spirit” or “being no help,” when all they want is a few hours to catch their breath

Determination to create the “perfect” holiday is a recipe for disaster.

On the Road, In the Air

Rear view of airplane seats with child peeking into aisle

And let’s not forget those “home for the holidays” family gatherings. It’s not easy hosting twenty people for three days. It’s not much easier being a guest, especially if you have to travel a hundred-plus miles in a crowded car or an even more crowded airplane. And especially with anyone prone to restlessness or sensory overload.

Cristen Reat, BridgingApps Co-Founder and Program Director, has a 20-year-old son with Down syndrome and other disabilities. She notes, “Vincent needs a lot of preparation for any kind of change, including travel. When an individual has IDD or sensory challenges, it’s also important to prepare typically developing siblings and other family members. 

“Fortunately, we are NOT traveling this year for the holidays. But when we do travel by plane, we use a wonderful free app, Access Houston Airports, for navigating the city’s International and Hobby airports. I love the maps and accessible-restrooms guides, the built-in social stories that can translate text to speech, and the games Vincent likes to interact with.”

Hopefully our BridgingApps database will soon include options for navigating airports in other cities. In the meantime, keep your own favorite apps handy, for navigation, social stories, games, and also noise cancellation, on any mode of transport. If you’re flying and won’t have in-route internet access, make sure your apps can operate in airplane mode.

See also our BridgingApps for Traveling Over the Holidays list.

woman laying on couch in front of Christmas tree
Woman laying on couch in front of Christmas tree

Less Is More

Whatever your family plans for the holidays (or any time of year), neurotypical parents can learn something important from their children: human beings aren’t made to function under constant motion and stimulation. And no one should be afraid to make it clear when they’ve had enough—probably not by screaming in public, but certainly by speaking up, without worrying about “what others think.”

The best gift you can give your family may be less—less decorating, less gift-buying, less rushing about—and more quiet nights at home. Trim your to-do list to eliminate meltdown triggers.    

Some closing hints:

  • Always respect individual preferences and limitations. There’s more than one “right way” to enjoy any season.
  • If you attend holiday events as a family, plan on going when crowds are lightest—and leaving before anyone is worn out.  
  • It’s a good sign if an event calls itself “sensory-friendly”; but that doesn’t guarantee it will suit your own children’s needs. Get specific details.
  • Always remember that treasuring relationships and experiences is the best way to celebrate.

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