Sensory Friendly Holiday Celebrations

Imagine
Have you ever sat in your backyard, on a park bench, on a mountaintop, or at the beach enjoying peace and quiet? Do you remember the sounds? Have you tried doing this recently?

Have you ever ridden a roller coaster, gone tubing or sledding down a hill, or raced down a hill on your bicycle? Do you remember the feel of the wind on your cheeks, in your hair, and against your skin?

In the Air There’s a Feeling
Special needs children with sensory sensitivity may crave either or even both of these scenes at different times, and meeting their needs helps them cope with the increased activity, crowds, sounds, smells, and sights of the holidays. Yet, the opportunities for meeting their needs are more limited than when many of us grew up.

The challenge is how to meet these needs during the busy holiday season during a time of year when roller coasters are frequently closed, and where laws frequently prevent our children from feeling the wind in their hair. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make time for a walk in the park.
  • Give them an hour or two to play a favorite video game.
  • Find a small snow-covered hill and take them sledding, or if there is no snow use a large cardboard box.
  • Spend time reading their favorite holiday story.

Above All the Bustle
You know how you hate the crowds during holiday shopping. Now, multiple that times twenty-five. Add in holiday school parties, school performances, and large gatherings of family and friends and you have sensory overload for some children. Throw in judgment of relatives and friends who do not understand your child and whose negative emotions your child senses, even if they cannot always identify where they originate, and you have a living nightmare. But, don’t despair. You and your child can still have a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah and a Happy New Year.

Begin by going to your tool chest of helpful items you have used with your child throughout the year.

  • Use social stories to prepare your child for planned events.
  • Bring their favorite food and comfort item to the family gathering or host the party, so they can retreat to their room if they become overwhelmed.
  • Talk to family and friends before the party and give them specific examples of how certain smells and noises affect your child.
  • Be sure to let family and friends know if your child recoils at the thought of being hugged.
  • Be prepared to leave early if necessary.
  • Avoid malls during the most crowded times or get someone to stay at home with your child, so they can avoid the crowds.
  • Include periodic breaks from activities to give your child much-needed downtime.
  • Keep your decorations simple and avoid using the ones that you know send your child over the edge.
  • Try to keep schedules as close to your normal routine as is humanly possible.
  • Work with your child’s school to ensure they are aware of things that overload your child too.

Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Unfortunately, you will not be able to control others’ judgment even during the season of giving. Hopefully as others become more educated, they will become less judgmental and more supportive.  Until then, you can help your child avoid internalizing the negative emotions.

  • You can explain to your child that the negative feelings they perceive from others are about the person doing the judging.
  • Remind them that you know they are wonderful.
  • Catch them being good and reward them for their good behavior.
  • Respond to negative comments with compassion and education.
  • Leave negative environments early.
  • Make time to do something positive with your child after a negative experience, but be sure you give them time to calm down first.
  • Older children might want to avoid situations they find toxic altogether. Support their decisions, especially if you have previously tried to educate those involved, and they still make the same mistakes.
  • Hopefully one day they will truly understand, and if they are lucky, they may be able to reenter your child’s life.
  • Remember your primary job is to raise an emotionally healthy child, not to please extended family and friends.

Wishing all of you a joyous holiday whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or something else.

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About D.S. Walker, RN

DS is the author of Delightfully Different, an inspirational, award winning, YA novel written to teach respect for differences. She advocates for better understanding of differences and can be found at http://authordswalker.com.




  • http://www.facebook.com/JudyEndow Judy Endow

    One of my favorite Christmas Day memories from when my 3 boys were small was the year they spent two hours in the bathtub in their swimming suits playing with a large bucket of new bathtub toys. Had to keep adding hot water and turn up the heat (Wisconsin winter :) but they had so much fun.
    When they were done they still had a few more presents to open. We always played with each gift or tried it on if it was clothes and sometimes even saved packages until another day. It helped that we had our family get togethers before Christmas Day came so we could just be home – my kids and I doing Christmas the way it worked best for us.
    Hope everyone has an enjoyable Christmas and I am sure this blog will help many!

  • Phil Dzialo

    Very wise advice for all of us. I am trying my best t avoid trees, flashing lights, shopping centers, and on. We celebrate the Winter Solstice…quiet, peaceful, etc. For some reason, I am drawn to the avoidance of stimulation