The holiday season is one of my favorite times of the year. It is also, by far, one of the most stressful! The cooking, baking, shopping, cleaning, decorating, parties, light shows, all the holiday activities- you name it, I feel like we need to do it!
Just take a minute to think about the sensory experiences of all of these magical activities. Shopping in a mall? Loud, crowded, noisy! I prefer online shopping from the comfort of my couch. Holiday parties? Loud, crowded, noisy, food you may not like, socializing with people you may not want to socialize with. Going to the all school holiday concert? Loud, crowded, unpredictable! When you break down some of these activities, they can be really overwhelming for adults, so just imagine how they can feel for our kids with sensory challenges.
So what can you do? How can we help our children enjoy these experiences without getting completely overwhelmed? Here are 10 tips to help you help your students/children this holiday season!
1. Prepare your child
Preparation is so important! Knowing what to expect or what the experience might be like can greatly help reduce stress and anxiety. Using social stories is a great way to help prepare. You can find some basic social stories from The Autism Helper here. Showing pictures of the experience can also help! If you are going to a mall, you may be able to use Google images the mall and of the stores you will be going to. I did a quick google search of a mall near me and multiple pictures showed up. If you are going to an experience like a lights show, look for pictures on their website or social media page. If you are going to a family members house for a party, look back in your phone or iCloud for pictures of last year’s party that can help your child know what to expect.
Of course we all know how much our students benefit from schedules – this can be difficult to maintain over the busy holiday season and you may have to be a bit creative. If you are planning an outing to a mall, during the preparation for the trip the child can choose what stores he will be going to and can organize them in a mini schedule. The ‘Notes’ app on the iPhone is a super easy way to make a quick written schedule that even includes a spot to check activities off the list. You can use this awesome (and cheap!) app called Picture Scheduler (on iPhones) to help organize pictures if needed. Again, Google Images should be able to help you find pictures of experiences or places that you may not already have. Finally – visuals don’t always have to be pretty- they just have to get the job done. You could even carry a pad of paper and write down a schedule for students who are readers. I am not above a stick figure drawing either – when you need to adapt on the fly, you do whatever you can!
3. Find ways to keep sensory routines
Does your child typically engage in sensory activities daily to maintain regulation? If so, the child will need that input and probably even more during the holiday season. Remember, heavy work is generally calming. Try giving your child a big hug before heading into the mall. Or let him open and close the doors, or push the cart if appropriate. It can be especially helpful to have your child engage in calming sensory routines just prior to leaving for or engaging in one of these more hectic holiday events.
4. Consider the food options
Our kids with sensory challenges are sometimes picky eaters too. This won’t magically stop during the holidays unfortunately. A holiday party is not the place to try to get your child to try vegetables. If you know the party host well enough, maybe calling him/her ahead of time to get a sense of the menu would be helpful. If there’s nothing on the menu that your child will eat, consider bringing your own food.
5. Plan holiday outfits in advance
Ah, there’s nothing like finding the cutest holiday sweater or pair of matching PJs for your child! However, those new clothes can come with all new sensations for the child who may overrespond to tactile input. Consider letting your child help pick out her holiday outfit in advance. You can talk about it and prepare ahead of time, and can deal with any texture issues in advance of party day. If your child has difficulty with the way clothes feel during the school year, those new holiday outfits may also pose a challenge.
6. Check if there is a ‘sensory-friendly’ option
In some areas, there may be sensory friendly options to experience popular holiday activities! For example, in the Chicago area there is a sensory friendly performance of the Christmas Carol, which features dimmed lights, specially trained staff and open doors for easy exit, reduced sound levels, designated quiet spaces. I recently saw an advertisement for a sensory friendly holiday festival – I think we will be seeing more and more of these opportunities in the very near future.
7. Watch for signs of sensory overload
No matter how much we try to prepare, our kids may still experience some level of sensory overload. You may notice your child becoming overwhelmed. He may put his hands over his ears or shield his eyes. At this point, he may still be calm. But if it’s beginning to be too much, your child may then become irritable, cry, nervous/anxious, hyperactive or overly silly. When you start to see some of these things, it may be a good time to take a break. Remember that when an experience is especially stressful, it is even harder for our kids to communicate how they feel and what they need. Although we are always striving for independence, our kids may need our help and prompting a little more during the holidays to manage their sensory needs – and that is OK!
8. Identify a quiet space or plan for escape
If you are at a public place, there may be an already identified area for families to take a break or have a quiet space. If you aren’t sure, a quick phone call or Google search may help. If you are attending the all school holiday concert, there may be a classroom near the gym where you can go if your student needs a break. It is helpful also to identify another person who can be on call to help if a child really needs to exit an experience. If you are going to someone’s house, maybe there is an extra room upstairs that could be identified as a quiet break space if your child needs it. This ties back in to preparation – it’s always good to have a backup plan if the experience just gets to be too much.
9. Bring tools with you
Try bringing familiar or preferred items along with you if possible. These can include stuffed animals, little toys, fidgets – whatever a child likes. These can help a child stay calm during a stressful experience. Some children may benefit from noise cancelling headphones or sunglasses to help manage auditory and visual input. When I worked in an elementary school, we always traveled with portable visuals on a ring to help our students request items or help them process information. Any of these portable tools will be so helpful in the moment.
10. Talk with your family and loved ones
During the holidays we sometimes see family that we don’t typically get to see during the year. This can be really amazing, but also stressful if you have a child with sensory needs. Sensory needs are so hard to understand as it is without the added holiday stress. Having a conversation (or sending an email!) ahead of the holiday party may be helpful to give your family a heads up on what your child may need. This way, if your child needs to take a break, they can help identify a quiet space. If your child doesn’t want to hug Aunt Ruth or eat any of the food she prepared, they won’t get offended.
I hope some of these tips are helpful! Do you have any other tips that work for you when it comes to helping your students and families manage sensory needs during the holiday season? I’d love to hear them!