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Tips for Managing Sensory Needs During the Holidays

Holidays can be an exciting time of the year for sure! We see family we haven't seen in a while. We sometimes travel to other homes and maybe even new places. These homes fill with our loved ones along with chatter and laughter as we share stories to catch up. As food is prepared in the kitchen the aroma spreads. At Christmas we often open presents wrapped in flashy paper. Children tear this paper in excitement to see what they're about to receive. The spotlight moves on to the next person opening their gift and by the end the floor is covered in that once pretty wrapping. Let's be honest while this experience is exciting many can relate to the feeling of relief when your head hits the pillow in your own bed at the end of this busy day! For children that struggle with sensory processing this experience may be overwhelming. Even children who seem to be eagerly anticipating Christmas day can struggle along the way.

Sensory Processing is the ability to take in information from our senses, so what we see, hear, smell, feel, etc, process and make sense of it, to then use in our daily experiences. When children are not able to process sensory information and accurately make sense of it their behavior or responses may seem off. For example, children that struggle with loud noise or busy environments may not be able to tell you it's too loud and they may run away crying or covering their ears. Another example may be a child that doesn't process "touch" information correctly and as cousins are innocently playing one bumps into them. The child registers the bump as if they had been pushed. So this child then exaggerates their response by shoving the person who accidentally bumped them. Here are some tips to help children with sensory processing deficits enjoy the holidays.

  • Prepare your child - This preparation helps to ease anxiety of the unknown. If your child is able to have a conversation discuss the details of your holiday events. Show them pictures of where you are going and talk about the people they will see. Some children benefit from a social story which is similar to a short book that outlines the details in story form.

  • Schedules - For children that struggle with transitions or like to know what is coming next use a visual schedule. There are multiple ways to use a visual schedule. Visual Schedules can simply be small pictures, ordering the events of the day ie. Grandma's house, adults cooking, kids playing, opening presents, family eating, and finally a car to go home. For children that can read a visual schedule can be a simple list of these events. There are also apps such as Notes or Google Tasks that create nice lists and activities can be checked off as they are completed so your child knows what is next, what is still to come, and sometimes most importantly, when it is the end.

  • Sensory Routine - If your child normally follows a sensory schedule, or sensory diet, to help regulate their bodies the holiday is not the time to skip it, although you may need to be creative to squeeze it in. Be sure they continue their routine throughout the holiday. For children that struggle with regulating sensory input they need to complete routine activities that give them appropriate sensory input. Proprioceptive, or deep pressure input helps to organize and calm children, and adults for that matter. Have your child help carry in the presents, take the trash out, wipe the table after Christmas dinner, or give extra hugs as naturally occurring activities that will help regulate their sensory system. Think "heavy work" and activities that involve this type of input should help your child.

  • Take the Tools - If your child routinely wears noise cancelling headphones to help filter the noise of a busy room, this day will probably be no exception so take them along. If your child uses other tools such as a weighted or pressure vest to help with self-regulation take them. We all have unique needs. Some take medicine, some wear glasses or contacts, some use a cane or a walker. Sensory tools are no different.

  • Food Options - Consider food options that will be present. If your child is a picky eater and you don't think there will be food they will eat, take food they will eat. The holiday is not the day to push new foods although they can be offered.

  • Plan Outfits - Planning ahead is the theme and clothing is no different. Discuss with your child an outfit you both can be happy with and set it out the night before, eliminating one more element of surprise.

  • Give an Out - As adults with typical sensory systems we can "read the room" to know when it's socially appropriate to step outside or go to the bathroom when we need a break. Allow your child "an out," or a break when they need it. This may be a code word, a subtle sign, or even an actual "break" card they give to you or another adult to let it be known that they need some quiet time. Designate a quiet space they can go. Watch for warning signs if your child may struggle to indicate when they need a break so that you can offer this to them before it's too late. Prevention is the key.

  • Lastly talk with your family ahead of time. There are simple ways to accommodate for sensory processing needs and most likely your family would love and appreciate the education in knowing how to support your child so they too, can experience the fun and excitement of the holidays!

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