The winter holidays are here and with that comes planning, excitement and usually stress. For our autistic children or children with sensory processing differences, the holidays can be a very stressful time due to changes in routine, different foods, changes in environment, and family gatherings. Though these are often challenges, here are some holiday sensory strategies to help make this time of year an enjoyable and comfortable experience for all our children.
1. Holiday meals
Make holiday meals comfortable by providing safe foods at meal time. Bringing safe foods or preferred foods can help your child participate more in family gatherings. Also, honor your child’s preferences. For example, if they do not like their foods to touch, bring a divided plate. Most importantly, do not force them to eat any foods they are not comfortable with. This may create a negative experience around the food or gathering and inhibit their desire to participate or try that food later on.
2. Taking breaks
Provide your child with breaks during busy family gatherings. If your child becomes overwhelmed, taking a break in a quiet area can help them calm down and be ready to return and participate more fully in the gathering. Know your child’s limits and avoid overscheduling them.
3. Holiday clothing
Help your child stay comfortable with normal clothes or a special holiday outfit they try on and help pick out. Make sure they have tried it on and will be comfortable in it. When shopping for the holidays, avoid shopping at very crowded times as stores can be very overwhelming for some children.
4. Christmas lights
Get away from enclosed spaces, crowds, and noise with a walk or drive around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights. Many autistic children or sensory seekers will enjoy watching the Christmas lights (even if your family doesn’t celebrate Christmas) and may benefit from a break away from the loud family gatherings while still enjoying time with family.
5. Routine, routine, routine
If you are traveling for the holidays or have family coming in to visit, the normal day-to-day routine may be disturbed. It can help to maintain as much of the normal routine as possible and explain changes to your child ahead of time so they are not as thrown off when the routine changes. Some children benefit from the use of visuals to better understand the changes to the schedule. Help your child feel more comfortable by allowing them to bring an item(s) that is familiar and enjoyed. Another option is to develop your own holiday traditions. For example, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Christmas Eve and allowing your child to recite the whole thing if they want to.
6. Managing Gifts
Opening many gifts at once or opening them in front of other family members can be very overwhelming for children. Honor your child’s gift-opening preferences. Also, ensure you talk to your child ahead of time if they are asking for a gift that they cannot have, such a real horse or a live unicorn. Talking with them ahead of time can help them know what they can expect and avoid unnecessary frustration and sadness at not receiving the gift they have been wanting.
Navigating family gatherings during the holidays can be overwhelming for any child. Help family members understand ahead of time by letting them know a few tips on how best to play or interact with your child. Support your child throughout the holiday event by gently but firmly advocating when needed. This may mean helping your child take a break when playing with the cousins becomes too overstimulating, or helping loving grandparents understand why your child prefers high five’s rather than hugs. The goal is for everyone to leave with happy memories of the event for years to come!
We hope these tips help your family make lots of new happy memories this holiday season! If you have more detailed questions about your child’s sensory needs, please feel free to reach out to one of our occupational therapists.