For many families supported by occupational therapists, the holidays often include additional stressors. In particular, the holiday season can be a time of sensory overload for children with sensory processing disorder.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Some people with sensory processing disorders are oversensitive to things in their environment.
For families with a child who has sensory processing challenges, the added holiday music, colorful lights, and loud family members can be overwhelming.
Occupational therapists can help prepare families for these challenges. Here are some tips to help families and children manage the holidays while still enjoying this time of year:
Have a Visual Planner
When there is a change in the daily routine, encourage families to sit down with and review the plan with their children. This will help the child know what to expect and will help reduce the number of surprises throughout the day.
An OT can help by making a visual schedule to put up on the refrigerator or carry in the family car.
Pack a Busy Bag
OTs can help families by packing a busy bag: a tote full of activities such as coloring books and crayons, a favorite stuffed animal, a soft blanket, play dough or putty, and other favorite sensory toys.
A busy bag will help give children the tools to stay regulated during the holiday hustle and bustle.
Encourage Parents to Communicate with Extended Family Members
It's helpful to let other family members know about a child’s SPD. Perhaps a child needs to eat before a large family dinner, wear ear defenders at a religious celebration, or be asked permission for hugs.
Clear communication will help everyone understand the child’s sensory needs and help avoid misunderstandings.
Take Frequent Movement Breaks
Movement breaks can be anything from a few minutes of yoga poses to an after-dinner walk to look at holiday decorations. Try to schedule time for breaks every couple of hours for a child to stay engaged and regulated.
Make New Traditions
Instead of the loud and crowded Christmas parade, brainstorm some new family traditions: bundling up for a nature walk, making holiday-themed sensory bins, and decorating cookies are calming activities that make for happy memories.
More on SPD and support during the holidays can be found in the OccupationalTherapy.com course, Supporting Parents During the Holidays by Nicole Kristal, MS, OT/L,