Sensory issues in kids: How to prepare for the holidays
The holidays can be stressful for any family, but for those with children who have a sensory processing disorder, the holidays can be particularly challenging. New sensory inputs, such as bright lights and home decorations, can be upsetting and difficult for some kids to process.
Sensory issues in kids can sometimes cause families to skip or minimize holiday activities. However, there are ways to help your child deal with these sudden changes to their environment.
Occupational therapy is an excellent way to help kids with sensory issues adjust to different environments and reach their maximum potential. Children under the care of an occupational therapist receive managed sensory diets and learn physical activities tailored to meet their needs and help them better handle the extra stimulation associated with the holidays.
What is sensory processing disorder?
To help kids with sensory issues thrive during the holidays, it's important to understand how the condition affects them. People with a sensory processing disorder have trouble handling all the information coming in from their senses — touch, hearing, taste, smell, and sight, as well as their senses of body awareness and movement.
This creates a "traffic jam" in their brains with conflicting signals coming from all directions, making it difficult for people — especially children — to understand what they are experiencing. This sensory overload can cause children to feel overwhelmed by sensations others may consider commonplace or pleasurable.
Holidays and the inevitable changes in routine and environment are one of many potential hurdles parents must clear to keep kids with sensory issues happy and healthy.
Create a comfortable environment
If your child has sensory issues, your family can still enjoy some of the traditional activities that come with the winter holidays. You may, however, need to make some simple adjustments. A few steps you can take to make your home more comfortable and less stressful for your child during the holidays include:
- Using lights sparingly. Bright lights are one of the most common triggers for kids with sensory issues, especially during Christmas. When decorating with lights, less is more. Consider electric window candles over a large outdoor display. If you like to decorate a tree, avoid flashing or colored lights. It can also be helpful to place your tree in an area of your home where traffic is low.
- Avoiding noise-making decorations. Children
with sensory processing disorder are often highly sensitive to noise,
especially repetitive noises. When decorating for the holidays, avoid using loud
items, such as bells, chimes, and electronic gadgets.
- Creating a quiet place in your home. If you have guests over for the holidays or decorations in your house, it's important to give your child a refuge from overwhelming sensations. Whether it's their bedroom, a playroom, basement, or another area of your home, make sure they have a safe, calming, and quiet place to go if they become overstimulated.
How do I know if my child has sensory issues?
Infants and toddlers with sensory issues may be resistant to cuddling and even arch away from parents and caregivers when being held. Older children may have difficulty understanding their position relative to other objects, which can result in them appearing clumsy and frequently bumping into things. Loud noises may be extremely distressing to children of all ages.
Sudden and extreme mood swings are another sign and often occur in response to changes in the environment. Many kids with sensory issues do well at home but may become overstimulated and stressed in public places such as grocery stores. In response to the overwhelming stimulation, they may have temper tantrums.
Examples of sensory issues
According to the STAR Institute, the exact cause of sensory processing disorder is unknown, but studies suggest it may be inherited from one or both parents. It also may be linked to complications before and during birth, or exposure to certain environmental factors. Children who are constantly exposed to screens may also be at risk of developing sensory issues.
The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that children with sensory processing disorder may overreact or underreact to sounds, clothing, and food textures.
Children who are oversensitive may:
- Gag when exposed to certain food textures
- Have poor balance
- Think most lights are too bright
- Think most sounds are too loud
- Tug at their clothing because it feels scratchy or itchy
Children who are under-sensitive may:
- Become sensory seeking, which can result in dangerous situations and injuries
- Chew on nonedible objects, such as clothing and their hands
- Have difficulty picking up on social cues
- Have difficulty recognizing and respecting personal spaces
- Have problems sleeping
- May be unable to sit still and constantly seek new stimulation
Sensory issues are common in people with autism, and both conditions have many overlapping symptoms. But not all children and adults who have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder have autism.
Maintain the holiday spirit
With some careful planning and preparation, families with children who have sensory issues can still enjoy the holidays.
Visiting a therapist who has the expertise to help your child feel safe and confident during the holiday season is also a great idea — not just for your child but for the entire family.
Our board-certified pediatricians and therapists are here to help kids with sensory issues enjoy the holidays with their friends and families. Request an appointment today.