The holiday season brings many heightened sensory experiences – bright lights, holiday songs, shopping trips, noisy toys and large crowds are enough to make most of us feel overwhelmed. All the excitement and changes in routines (with limited down time), can increase our stressors and emotions. Now, imagine if all those sensations were intensified, where every sight, sound, smell, and touch became too overwhelming. For children with Sensory Processing Disorder, this is an all-too-familiar reality and why having sensory strategies to help them calm their systems can make a major difference in surviving the holiday season.
What is a Sensory Processing Disorder?
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have trouble interpreting and responding appropriately to incoming sensations. These challenges often make our ever-changing world feel overwhelming, confusing, or unknown. When children’s sensory systems are overloaded, it’s particularly challenging for them to function in an organized way. The result is often excessive frustration or rigidity, refusals, meltdowns, or aggressive behaviors impacting their day-to-day comfort, functioning, and socialization. This is why we need to have sensory strategies at our disposal to help our children get back to neutral.
Sensory Strategies to Help Calm Your Child
There are a wide variety of sensory strategies and activities you can involve your child in to create happy holiday memories while helping to regulate their sensory systems. Situations involving multiple sensations, like unexpected touch or noise, multiple social interactions, and quickly changing demands will be more stressful. Preparing for and structuring chaotic situations by incorporating activities that provide calming sensory input, your child can experience the holidays with more enjoyment! This starts by carefully observing what types of experiences overwhelm your child, as well as identifying those activities that help regulate them.
Exercises that are rhythmical, predictable, and involve touch pressure are typically calming and regulating. Having a place and space to re-group during or between events helps reset the nervous system and regulate minds, bodies, and emotions. In addition, creating a plan for the day and pre-viewing activities and strategies with your child is essential so your child can have a clearer expectation of the events ahead.
Related Reading: Self Advocacy During the Holiday Season
Tips for a Sensory Friendly Holiday
Aside from talking through with your child about upcoming chaotic situations and what they can expect, below are more tips that you can use this year for a sensory-friendly holiday season.
- Shorten the participation time or enter activities when they are less busy
- Consider skipping places bombarded with sensations such as the mall, candle store, or movie theater
- Watch for signs of overload and discontinue or change activities before a meltdown occurs
- Use visual aids and/or social stories to help them ‘see’ what will happen
- Pre-determine a ‘safe’ or quiet break place for regrouping
- Dress your child in pressure garments such as Under Armor undershirts or leggings
- Practice mindful breathing
It is often helpful to provide your child with a sensory regulating activity before a holiday event, so your child is feeling relaxed going into an experience. We always encourage the incorporation of PROPS for those with sensory needs, and the list below offers some holiday-themed activities for sensory input:
- Make snow angels, even if there is no snow!
- Use boxes or laundry baskets to create the Polar Express or Santa’s sleigh
- Make cookies: stir batter, use rolling pins and cookie cutters
- Cut out snowflakes or holiday shapes
- Use dot markers and crayons to create holiday decorations
- Create wrapping paper using a handmade potato stamp, or use a holiday stamp and paints
- Make cotton ball or sugar cube snowmen
- Blow cotton balls or small pieces of paper along the ground with a straw, pretending they are snowflakes
- Crawl around the house pretending to be a polar bear