By: Diana Henry, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA
The holiday season is here! Parents and caregivers who have children with sensory processing challenges need to have strategies to provide “sensory safe” environments when possible. One or more sensory systems (e.g., hearing, seeing, touching, moving or smelling) may need to be ‘tuned up’ to prevent a meltdown.
Parents can often tell when their child is about to “overload” and have a “fight/flight” response to sensations that the child cannot modulate or process.
Below are strategies to provide supportive activities and create “sensory safe” environments. Some of these can be found in Holiday Helpers, one of the chapters in the Tools for Parents handbook.
- has trouble with changes in his routine or schedule
- has difficulty behaving in restaurants
- tends to have tantrums at loud parties or crowded shopping malls
- tends to cry or ‘act out’ when leaving a fun place.
- Prepare your child BEFORE, DURING and AFTER the event to help him feel “sensory safe”.
· Balance consistency with flexibility.
STEP 1: Help your child be prepared for holiday events.
Keep to your regular schedule and routine when possible. Too many changes can be stressful.
Before a big event:
- Let your child know the schedule ahead of time. A visual schedule can make it easier for her to understand.
- Prepare your child by explaining the rules, times, and what to expect. For example, if having to sit and listen during a program, tell her how much time she will need to sit quietly. A Time Timer can make the waiting easier.
- Write a Social Story together. This process helps your child be engaged by designing the sensory strategy which she knows will help her. See Social Stories in the Tools for Parents handbook for an outline.
- If you plan something exciting at night, use calming strategies during the day. This helps your child rest and stay centered before the event.
- Wrap your child (with firm pressure) in a soft cozy quilt and role play together what she will experience and what to expect at the event.
During an event:
- Encourage your child to take a break before becoming over-stimulated.
- Limit the amount of time at family gatherings, parties or events. Make sure he has a quiet place to go to when the environment becomes too overwhelming or loud.
- Play the “hot dog” game. Your child first lies on his back across a blanket. Then roll him up snugly with gentle firm pressure. Or use a sleeping bag. Pressure touch and neutral warmth (the body’s heat retained) tend to be calming for most children. Be sure to keep the head uncovered and the arms out!
After an event:
- Use a calming routine after returning home from an event.
- Choose activities which your child enjoys from Heavy Jobs in the Tools for Parents handbook.
- Curl up together while sharing a book. Avoid using a tablet when preparing for bed as the light from the screen can be too exciting.
STEP 2: Invite your child to help during and in between holiday preparations.
Focus on her sensory preferences so you can design or ‘load the activity’ with that specific sensory input which works for her (e.g., tactile “deep touch”, muscle “push-pull” or movement “swinging”). Here are some examples:
- With clean hands, help your child enjoy, pushing down, kneading and rolling the cookie dough with both hands.
- Encourage your child to help with chores (e.g., sweeping and washing windows). Engaging her muscles can be calming and centering.
- Ask your child to carry heavy (but not too heavy or difficult to control) packages while in the shopping mall.
- Take a break during busy shopping excursions. Go to the park or playground to include climbing, running or swinging in your child’s day. This can bring joy, laughter and can also be calming.
- End the day by using some of the tips from Getting Ready in Tools for Parents:
- A warm bath
A five minute firm rub down with a terry cloth towel or unscented body lotion
- Offer calming scents she enjoys such as lavender
- Play calming rhythmic music or use white noise in the background
- Snuggle up and share some beautiful poetry which includes rhythm and rhyme
- A warm bath
Now, enjoy your holidays knowing that you and your child have the sensory tools in your Tool Chest to make these special times a success!