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Sensory Processing Disorder during the Holidays


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‘Tis the Season for Sensory Overload


It is once again that time of year… the time when carols fill the air; storefronts twinkle with lights and tinsel; streets and sidewalks are crowded with shoppers; bells are ringing on every other corner; sugar cookies and candy canes are standard offerings; and a man in a big, red suit makes an appearance. Most of us look forward to the holiday season. Indeed, Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the United States. But for at least 1 in 20 children who suffer with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), their environment becomes even more difficult to navigate than usual. For parents of children with SPD, understanding how to minimize exposure to overstimulation may better help kids cope with new and unfamiliar settings. This article provides a few tips and tricks to ensure that Christmas is a positive experience for the whole family.


SPD Basics

According to the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorders, “sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.” In other words, sensory processing is the body’s way of translating outside stimulus into response. It is an autonomic process, which means that it governs our behavior involuntarily. Like the “fight or flight” response, how we react to our environment is determined by chemical responses in the brain. However, for children with SPD, “studies suggest that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are not functioning properly” and, therefore, “the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses.” These responses manifest as sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding behaviors such as sensitivities to touch, taste, smell, and noise; inattentiveness or distractibility; fidgeting; frequent and intense tantrums; difficulty making friends; difficulty transitioning from one activity to another; constant motion and/or impulsivity; aggression; decreased body awareness; and poor motor skills, to name just a few. Children with SPD may have difficulties socially, academically, and/or emotionally as they may perceive their environment to be hostile compared to their typically developing peers.


Christmas Challenges

Although parenting a child with SPD is a challenge year-round, the holiday season presents its own set of complications. Below are some suggestions to help you steer clear of trigger stimulants and avoid a potential meltdown.


Prepare in Advance – Both the unknown and the unexpected can be particularly difficult for children with SPD to handle. Before heading out and about with your child, make sure to talk with him or her about what you will be doing and where you will be going.


  1. Minimize the number of things you plan to do. In other words, don’t try to cram all your Christmas shopping into a single trip. Be aware that your child may only tolerate one or two non-routine activities per day.


  1. Allow your child to choose the order in which you will do things. Having a clear idea of what to expect can go a long way for someone with SPD. Engaging in a conversation about what will happen first, second, and last may give your child a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic environment.


  1. Rehearse phrases that help your child communicate how they are feeling. Having the right vocabulary for expressing overstimulation can be a key coping mechanism. Statements such as “There is too much noise.” or “Please don’t touch me right now.” may go a long way toward preventing problem behaviors before they manifest.


Be Flexible – Children with SPD often have a difficult time with flexibility so it is up to parents adapt when the need arises. If you see that your child is beginning to display signs of dysregulation, adjust their environment to a more tolerable one.


  1. Decrease the stimulant that is triggering a reaction. If your child is sensitive to noise, consider bringing a pair of earmuffs or noise-cancelling headphones to reduce the volume of the auditory input. Similarly, if the sensitivity is related to visual stimulation, bring a well-loved picture book or chapter book and have your child ride in a cart while they read and you finish shopping.


  1. Take a quick break. Find a quiet corner or step outside, if needed. Sometimes temporarily walking away from an overstimulating environment may provide enough relief to resume the activity later. Comfort your child according to their preferred method of interaction. This could be as simple as a brief hug/cuddle or a conversation about their favorite topic.


  1. Be prepared to leave. Gauge your child’s ability to handle additional stimulation. Remember that their responses are often beyond their control. Don’t force them to “push through” a task simply because they “should” be able to cope. Although learning to better cope is the ultimate goal for children with SPD, such forced interactions should occur only in a controlled sensory environment under the supervision of a specialist, such as an Occupational Therapist (OT).


Manage your Expectations – Accommodating your child’s special needs sometimes means giving up things that are important to you. You may have to rethink and reprioritize your Christmas rituals to better suit your child.


  1. Don’t make your child sit on Santa’s lap. Having a picture of your child with Santa Claus to commemorate the holiday season is a time-honored tradition, but it is also one which can trigger a strong emotional response from those with SPD. Instead, consider taking your child’s photo near the Christmas tree or on a patio chair in the snow.


  1. Limit sugar intake. Resist the urge to accept the free sweets which typically accompany Winter activities like caroling, school plays, and other festivities. Children with SPD tend to respond more acutely to sugar which can intensify unwanted behavioral responses.


  1. Restructure Christmas morning. Rather than bombarding your child with gift after gift, have him or her take their time to open each item and play with it before moving on to the next. You may even want to give them one new gift per hour to minimize overstimulation.

If you have any questions, or would like to have your child assessed for SPD, please contact Stephanie Foster, PhD, OTR/L at (805) 264-1553.

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