Our Senses Take No Holidays: Three Steps For Simplifying Holidays With Your Sensory Child

By Matthew Bauer, Executive Director of the Spiral Foundation at OTA Watertown

Being the parent of a child with special sensory needs, I found the holidays could be particularly challenging. A time that I looked forward to sharing family traditions with my son became a source of worry instead: would he act up? Would other family members understand what was going on with him? Is his meltdown going to be my only lasting memory of this holiday season?

To help you answer these questions, here are three tips for preparing yourself for the holidays. I’ve found these helpful for myself, my family and, most of all, my son when we’re planning for big family gatherings or other special events.

Gear Up To Answer Your Child’s Needs
It’s a simplistic statement, but in truth a complex concept: knowing what types of sensory inputs your child needs to remain balanced will help you plan. My boy craves lots of proprioceptive input (which helps him feel himself in his body) as well as vestibular input (his sense of his whole body in gravity).  But he avoids novel smells, new foods and certain types of visual stimuli. As a result, when we pack the car to travel to my family’s Christmas celebration, we bring along toys and games anyone can play with him: a mini-parachute, weighted blanket, astronaut spinning board, as well as small stuff that he finds calming and centering, like favorite videos, books or toys.

We found it’s also great to have a small space set aside where he can go to have a break. It’s easy to forget just how overwhelming the holidays can be, and for someone who already has difficulty discriminating sensory stimuli, the combination of music, lights, food smells, hugging, crowds, and loud voices can be overwhelming and may trigger behavioral responses.

Set Expectations For Yourself
Family traditions don’t always leave a lot of room for flexibility. In my own house growing up, Dad made a special soup that was served at every Christmas dinner since he was a little boy, and not eating some of his soup could be a cause of embarrassment or shame. I found taste and smell and even the sound of the soup hitting the bowl to be disgusting—my senses of taste, smell and hearing are all extremely sensitive—but would choke it down for the sake of being a good sport.

Today I couldn’t imagine forcing my son to eat something he didn’t want for the sake of tradition, but kids don’t always feel capable of making such choices for themselves. So I recommend picking one or two elements of the holiday that you would like your child to participate in: Maybe opening presents and a family meal are the two biggest events of the season. Perhaps a long walk outside and baking cookies are the memories you’d like to have of your child from the season. Whatever those things are, help prepare your child for participating in those activities with a visit to a snowy playground for some intense swinging before the neighborhood holiday party, a quiet break reading a book before opening gifts, or laying under a weighted blanket for a while before dinner. Whatever it takes to prime your child’s sensory pump–even if it seems strange or extreme to you–will help ensure that the special event will be enjoyable for everyone.

Think Long Term
Just as there are no quick fixes to helping a child with sensory issues get into balance, there is no quick fix to getting a sensory kid to engage in the overwhelming whirl of the holidays. So work with your child to take small steps each year. After a successful holiday think about some options to add for the coming year’s holiday season and plan accordingly. If you can talk with your child, ask him or her what else looked like fun, or what he or she would like to try the next year. If things didn’t go so well, discuss what might be a better activity, or how you can prepare better next year. With some forethought and preparation your child may even try Grandpa’s yucky soup next year.

Happy holidays from the Spiral Foundation at OTA-Watertown!

For more stories, info, resources, facts and tips, go to www.thespiralfoundation.org

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Sensory For The Holidays: Five Low-Cost Gift Ideas For Sensory Kids

Gifts for kids with special sensory and motor needs purchased from a specialty retailer can be expensive. But sensory-beneficial playthings need not be “clinical-strength” equipment.  Here are a few gift ideas–including several that can be made at home–which can be both fun and functional.

First it’s important to keep in mind the recipients particular sensory profile. A child who is easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli may not get the same enjoyment or benefit out of an item suited for a sensory-seeking child and vice-versa. Talk with the child’s parent or occpuational therapist (OT) for some suggestions.

Wonderfully Weighted
Heavy items provide deep touch pressure and proprioceptive input. An easy and inexpensive option–especially if you’re handy with a needle and thread–is to purchase a floppy stuffed animal, remove some of the stuffing, and insert beanbags or a fabric bag loosly packed with fish tank gravel (use the white kind as colored gravel can bleed when washed). Depending on the child, this toy can be great for snuggling, laying under or placing on his or her lap to provide the grounding input some kids crave. Even simpler: Some slightly heavy beanbags and a two play buckets can also be the start of carrying or tossing games.

Calm, Cuddly & Quiet
Think of items that can be used to build a kid-sized, quiet sensory space: sleeping bags, fun shaped or printed throw pillows, a play tent, an area rug with an unusual texture. A few items like this can turn a space in a child’s room or other living space into a favorite place to relax and regroup.

Treasure Hunt!
Fill a 16-ounce (or larger) plastic storage tote three-quarters full with dried red beans, available in bulk from the grocery store. Bury small toys–plastic dinosaurs, toy cars and the like–in the beans and dig for treausre. Throw in some beach toys for scooping. This is a favorite activity that OT’s have in their clinics, but it’s easy to replicate at home for not much money. Note: it’s a good idea to place a large blanket or bedsheet on the floor while playing with beans to catch any that come out of the tote.

Bright Lights, Big Colors
Lava lamps aren’t just for dorm rooms! Black-light or other colored lightbulbs, flashlights covered with cut-out cardboard silhouettes, and the old dorm-room standby lava lamp can be great for kids who seek visual stimulation. Likewise, items like aquarium lamps (which mimic the look of fish swimming in water) or glowsticks can be fun and, depending on the child, quite calming. Keep in mind that bigger items like lava lamps are often made of glass and can get hot, so choose light-up items with the child’s particular situation in mind.

Swing, Swing, Swing!
Most kids love to swing, and it provides valuable input into the vestibular system located in the inner ear. For families who have an outdoor swing-set, it’s easy to make a stretchy hammock from six or nine yards of heavy-duty lycra spandex material, ususally available at fabric stores. With a couple large carabiners from an outdoor store, the fabric can be tied into a large loop and suspended from the existing outdoor swingset or between two large trees. For indoor use, we recommend a doorway swing support bar, which is available from therapy stores for under $100. Before setting up swings or other suspended equipment, talk with an OT for guidance on how to set up and play with a doorway swing safely.

While a doorway swing bar is not cheap, it can be extremely useful in places where weather prevents kids from going to outdoor playgrounds. Providing easy access to an indoor swing is good for kids who need intense vestibular input, and great for parents and caregivers who would prefer not to dash through the snow to an indoor playgym.

Speaking of playgyms, membership to an indoor play space is a great gift for kids with sensory needs. Some incorporate imaginative and physical play, while others cater specifically to gross-motor activities such as swinging, jumping, sliding and bouncing. Memberships can be extremely valuable not just because of the access to a safe play environment; members may also find they have more access to a wider variety of playtimes and activities.  At times these play places may be overstimulating for sensory sensitive children, so check with the child’s parents to see if this is a good match.

No matter what you choose, check with the child’s parent or occupational therapist for feedback before selecting and purchasing a sensory gift. Happy holidays from everyone at the Spiral Foundation at OTA-Watertown!

For more stories, info, resources, facts and tips, go to www.thespiralfoundation.org