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Hectic Holidays

Strategies for the Sensory Challenged Child and their Families

Feasts, parties, family gatherings, and candy galore can only mean one thing. The holiday season is rapidly approaching! For children with sensory sensitivities such as those suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or autism, this can be an overwhelming and chaotic experience. Below is a list of suggestions to keep this as the happy and exciting time of year that it should be for the whole family.

While vacation and relaxation are important, it is important that children feel a strong sense of structure and normalcy. Being able to anticipate upcoming events and activities throughout the day is often comforting for the sensory sensitive child.

  1. Sensory diets, brushing protocols, visual and auditory prompts etc. should all continue to be a part of the daily routine. Disorganization can lead to stress and anxiety which will raise the stress levels of both parents and siblings.

  2. Create a calendar or schedule with Velcro pictures or words that you and your children can arrange at the start of the day to give them a sense of control over what is to come,

  3. See another POTS Blog post for more ideas about establishing routines.

Many holiday experiences are novel: sights, sounds and smells can be over-stimulating and result in a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. ‘Fight’ in response to an overwhelming experience may look like aggression, screaming, crying, or combative behavior. ‘Flight’ looks like social, emotional or physical withdrawal. With repetition, lists, charts, and prompts your child will feel more prepared.

  1. If you anticipate your child being frightened at an unfamiliar home at a holiday party, or at a birthday party, bring him early so that he can acclimate and become comfortable in the new surroundings prior to the arrival of people, noise and chaos.

  2. Plan a shorter stay with a clear end-time. Your child is more likely to experience success, because he knows that the stressful activity will be over.

  3. Write a "social story" and review it over and over, so that your child "rehearses" the events which decreases the stress anticipating the unknown.

  4. Holiday activities, such as crafts or baking, should be broken down into small components with concrete instructions and a model of the final product.

On vacation days it will be beneficial for your child to have a balance of high energy activities such as a snowball fight, low energy activities such as wrapping gifts or playing holiday games, and downtime.

  1. If your children need a calming activity and enjoy fine motor play, set them up with crafts to make holiday decorations. Making play dough or slime and baking provide "heavy work" activities that are calming and organizing.

  2. During down time pull out prior year's photo albums to remind them of the fun and exciting upcoming events, and refamiliarize them with foamily members and friends they may not have seen for a while

  3. For a total body activity, help your children create obstacle courses. Incorporate "heavy work" to keep it calm, such as carrying, dragging or walking across heavy pillows. To ramp up the excitement, you can time how long it takes them to complete it and see if they can best their own time.

  4. Raking leaves and shoveling snow are also total body "heavy work" activities that are calming and organizing.

Delegate! Give your child a job a week before a holiday. For example, one week prior to hosting a holiday party have your child make place cards. When the cards are complete and the table is set, have her place them on the table. This project will prepare your child for the guests as well as give her a sense of responsibility.

Flexibility is the most important factor in having an enjoyable holiday season. This may mean missing out on certain activities that are not suitable for your child or helping your child find a ’safe place’ in a busy home. A safe place is somewhere quiet and calm, where your child can play, read a book, or simply sit quietly away from the crowd. The safe place should have as few distractions as possible and be away from loud sounds. Search for potential safe spots with your child such as the bottom step of a staircase, or a seat in the kitchen when others are in the dining room. Your child may want to be apart from the crowd for a while, but close enough so that he or she can see what is going on.

For each family the holidays mean something different. No matter how or what you celebrate, it is important to keep the needs of your sensory sensitive child in mind for the whole family to enjoy a fun and memorable holiday season.

In addition, here are some websites that have great seasonal craft and activity ideas for kids:

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