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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