We are deep into the holiday season and all of its shopping, visiting, dinners and more. For children with special needs and especially those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), this time of year is very challenging and often downright impossible to navigate. A child with SPD who is trying to handle the sights, sounds, smells and crowds of the holidays can experience a rapid meltdown.
Sensory Integration is the process by which we receive information through our senses, organize the information and use it to participate in daily activities. Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to external stimuli. SPD may affect a single sense, such as taste, touch or hearing. It may also affect multiple senses, and people can be under-responsive or over-responsive to things with which they have difficulties.
It can be viewed as a spectrum, with sensitivities that range from mild to debilitating. Difficulty processing information from our senses leads to a variety of issues including:
-uncoordinated movement, balance and gait
-difficulty with spatial orientation
-discomfort and pain
-depression and anxiety
SPD is an ongoing issue that becomes elevated during the holidays. With so many additional situations, such as lights, sounds, odors and crowds it’s important to have coping strategies to help your child during this time of year. It’s also important to know your child, and know his/her triggers as you plan for the holidays.
The most important aspect of the holidays and SPD is remember that you know your child. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Before outings, shopping and get-togethers prepare items, toys and foods that offer calm and peace to your child when he/she is stressed. Involve your child in packing these items. Reminding your child that you worked together in planning will help assure him that he’s not alone in the overwhelming situation. Speak with family or friends who will be attending seasonal activities with you. Explain that you are preparing some strategies in support of your child’s sensitivities.
We’ve put together a list of some situations and strategies that might help:
This time of year means extra crowds. There will be a lot of people at the mall, shopping centers, small stores, and holiday get togethers. Certainly, if you can leave your child home while shopping, that’s the best option. For those times you can’t realistically avoid crowds, you can try to shop at non-peak hours to help your child adjust. You can also try some of the following:
-use headphones if external noise is troublesome; this is a good way to keep a constant, comfortable sound level
-try sunglasses to help deal with excess visual stimulation
-use weighted vests and ankle weights to provide the physical pressure to stay calm
Each family knows their child best, and knows what items and strategies work best during travel. Favorite electronics and other activities can help with a long car ride.
Photos with Santa
We’ve heard of extremes regarding children with SPD and having photos taken with Santa. Some children are—let’s be polite here—not happy about it. Red-faced, screaming and sweaty, these children are not pleased when propped on Santa’s lap. There are also children who are so interested in Santa they touch his beard, play with his bells, and take a long time with the bearded man. For those children, it’s worth exploring ‘Caring Santas,’ available at certain malls this holiday season. Here are two links to these events: https://www.instagram.com/mksallc/ and https://events.longisland.com/caring-santa-at-smith-haven-mall2.html
Plan ahead with regard to houseguests, whose presence can cause over-stimulation like any other crowd. Be sure your child has a quiet area in which to play or rest. Let relatives know if hugging is ok or off limits. Overall, it’s important to try to keep your child’s routine as normal as possible, even if it means parents wind up rearranging their own routine or schedule. It’ll be worth it!
The holidays are synonymous with big meals and a lot of special foods. Oral defensiveness is a common issue for children with SPD, and this can lead to picky eating. While this is likely something that is worked on throughout the year, the holidays mean new, unique holiday dishes, many with strong odors. Some strategies for handling this include sticking to your regular routine with regard to meal times and placement of dishes and silverware. Notify guests of your child’s dietary issues when appropriate to avoid hurt feelings when a child refuses to eat new foods. At mealtime, allow your child to explore new foods, respectfully and discretely. If possible, prepare one or two of your child’s non-holiday favorites. New foods, a large crowd at the table and a lot of distractions are very difficult for a child with SPD to handle. Reward good behavior with special treats, extra play time or special praise.
For additional coping tips, take a look at this list: https://sensoryprocessingdisorderparentsupport.com/tips-for-a-more-successful-sensory-christmas.php
We’ll circle back to the most important point: remember that you know your child. Trust your intuition; no one knows your child better than you do. Make no apologies for your child and surround yourself with people who understand you, and what your child is going through.
Wishing you a happy, healthy holiday season.
Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not an attempt to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always consult your child’s pediatrician with any specific medical questions. MKSA is also available to answer questions about child development or about Sensory Processing Disorder. Contact us at 516-731-5588 or www.mksallc.com.