By Dr Alice Siberry
Cities, towns, supermarkets, and shopping centres are overstimulating at the best of times. But during the festive period, there is an additional layer of stimulation on the sensory system and pressure on our executive function.
Starting late November / early December, the urgency increases. There’s presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and post, ingredients to purchase for Christmas dinner, plans to make with family and friends, a tree to decorate and all of this before the 25th December!
It might be easy to see why anyone would become overwhelmed at this time of year. However, for neurodivergent people, the intensity of such overwhelm might lead to complete burnout.
There are several factors that contribute to overwhelm for neurodivergent people during the festive season, and many of these revolving around Christmas Shopping:
- Getting there – no mode of transport appears unaffected at Christmas. The roads, the trains, and the buses are all busier than usual, causing not only unpredictability and changes in routine, but sensory overwhelm. Travel and transport also contribute to challenges with time management, places where there are often not queues, will see changes in the volume of traffic during December.
- The amount of people – it is noticeable busier at this time of year, no matter where you are. Town centres are busier, supermarkets are busier. Everyone is working to the same goal – complete their to-do list before the ‘big’ day! People significantly contribute to sensory overload – the sheer volume, competing sounds and additional sensory information, social expectations; there is often little escape from the crowds.
- The shopping centre / supermarket / store itself – without sounding too much like ‘The Grinch’, there is only so many times one can hear Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby pouring out of every speaker in every shop you enter. Not to mention the addition of festive lighting and brightly coloured décor, the abundance of spicy smells and the temperature fluctuations of a heated store vs. the December chill, the environment itself is enough to cause overwhelm.
- Putting it all together – once you return home, the list returns. It’s time to wrap presents, write cards, prep Christmas dinner, and decorate the tree. The ability to remember everyone you need a gift for, the ability to plan what you will do for each person, and the ability to prioritise the Christmas dinner cooking, put undoubted strain on the executive function, leading to avoidance and in many cases, overwhelm.
The key for many neurodivergent people when preparing for the festive season is to start early:
- It is all in the planning.
- Set budgets well in advance – there is a name for people who shop in December, “end of year consumers” and most retailers use this to their advantage. For ADHDers, who might leave Christmas shopping to the last minute or who are more likely to ‘impulse buy’ (Dennis, 2021), having a budget and buying gifts / food / decorations early will save a small fortune!
- For those who struggle with the sensory overwhelm, online shopping is ideal. It is likely that the online stores will have just as much choice and variety as physical stores, without the additional pressure of people and other sensory stimuli.
- For those who like to go physically shopping and may be less effected by the hustle and bustle, schedule a time to do so. If this is prior to December before it starts to get really busy, even better. It might be that you research and utilise accessible shopping hours.
- If you have to go shopping in December, go with someone who can support and set realistic expectations. There is no requirement to buy everything in one trip!
- Simplify and agree with loved ones about gift expectations. Though there is often a desire to find that ‘perfect gift’, setting an expectation can take away a lot of ‘guess work’. It can also help to simplify the process of actually thinking of a gift to buy someone (which requires ‘perspective-taking’ skills many neurodivergent find challenging). On setting that expectation, it might be as simple as putting some money towards a new pair of shoes!
- For dyslexic people, the idea of writing endless amounts of Christmas cards could be daunting and lead to avoidance. Look at options for online Christmas cards.
- Similarly, dyspraxic people might have challenges wrapping presents. Find alternative ways to wrap gifts, putting things in gift bags, or simply providing the present as it is – it’s better for the environment, anyway!
Dennis, M. (2021) ADHD Shopping Secrets. Source: https://www.additudemag.com/impulse-buying-money-problems-adhd-adults/#:~:text=Spontaneous%20spending%20—%20and%20financial%20headaches,which%20ADHD%20brains%20constantly%20crave.
Seeberger, C. (2020) Sensory-Friendly Shopping. Source: https://www.sensoryfriendly.net/autism-hour-vs-sensory-friendly-shopping/
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