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kids with sensory issues during the holidays, iStock

How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Holiday

better experiences for kids with special needs

The holidays can be a lot to manage. Yes, you’re off work, the kids are off school, and you’re (usually) spending time with family you haven’t seen all year. It’s a time for holiday baking, shopping for gifts, and decorating the tree. Fun, but sometimes stressful, right? If it’s stressful for you or a neurotypical child, just imagine how stressful the holidays can be for kiddos with special needs—particularly sensory sensitivities.

There’s so much going on: more lights, more sounds, more people, more everything. And while we’re conditioned to think of those changes as good things, “even happy change can be difficult for children on the spectrum, or with any additional needs,” says Dallas mom Stephanie Hanrahan, a blogger who has two kids with autism.

For Hanrahan’s family, navigating the holidays is about being prepared. “School ends for winter break, grandparents visit, routines are shifted … anxiety can easily increase,” Hanrahan notes. “We’ve found that setting clear expectations with accompanying visual aids or social stories really help with the transitions and keep our holidays merry and bright.”

Erika Slater—a Coppell resident whose 12-year-old son has autism, autoimmune encephalitis and diabetes—says the holidays got easier when she allowed herself to say “no.”

“We tried so hard every year after [his] diagnosis to attend every party, involve our child in all the ‘normal’ traditions,” she says. “At some point, we re-evaluated exactly what our son enjoyed, and we decided that he didn’t have to participate in everything that our neurotypical children preferred. Once we allowed ourselves to graciously decline, we avoided stressful gatherings and focused on activities that brought our son fulfillment.”

Sensory Friendly Holiday Tips 

If your child will be in a situation that may cause some stress (sometimes they’re unavoidable, no matter how your family celebrates in December), there are ways to mitigate anxiety. Life Skills Autism Academy in Plano shared these tips for making the holidays enjoyable when special needs are at play.

“Each year, we do the exact same schedule […] November 1, we take down Halloween and change to Thanksgiving.”

Keep your child’s regular appointments.
The experts at Life Skills highly recommend that you stick to your child’s regular schedule for therapy and other appointments that support their well-being. And if they miss a few hours, try to make them up. “ABA therapy is an important part of a child’s routine and can help reduce the stress of school breaks and holiday hustle and bustle,” the Life Skills teams says.

Stay away from surprises.
When possible, stick to your daily routines. This can give children a sense of comfort during the busy season. Use calendars or make a schedule with pictures so they know what to expect in terms of parties or other holiday events.

Slater says routines really help out her family. She displays a “countdown calendar” in the kitchen, and her son does the same thing every morning leading up to a big event. “He changes the number immediately after he wakes,” she notes. “The visual cue of knowing how many days [are left] dramatically decreases his anxiety.”

She and her family also have firm dates to change the decorations in their home. “Each year, we do the exact same schedule,” she says. “The first day of October, we start to decorate for Halloween. November 1, we take down Halloween and change to Thanksgiving. The day after stuffing ourselves with turkey and pie, we work off the calories by turning our home into a Christmas scene. Having a plan makes the transition more acceptable.”

Decorate gradually if needed.
If those single-day décor transformations don’t work for your child, Life Skills suggests adding decorations around the house gradually—so your little has time to adjust. Allow them to be a part of the decisions as well.

Let food issues go during holiday events.
If you have a kiddo with a very limited palate, don’t use holiday parties to work on it. “If you’re hosting, let them pick some menu items,” the Life Skills team advises. “If visiting another home, take food that’s comforting and familiar to help them through.”Don’t expect the host of the event to make dietary accommodations.

Bring items that comfort your child.
Let them take a small bag of comfort items to whatever event you’re attending. Toys, fidget spinners, books, a blanket—pick belongings that will soothe your child if the event becomes over-stimulating.

Find a quiet spot for your kiddo.
If you’re visiting someone’s home, ask the host if there’s a room or small area that can be a quiet space. Then show that space to your child so they know they can retreat there if needed.

Don’t test their limits.
Since new sights, sounds and people can overwhelm kids, particularly those on the autism spectrum, don’t force them to participate in all the goings-on during the holidays. Life Skills Autism Academy experts suggest encouraging their participation but not expecting them to sit for hours of gift exchanges or to hug every person at the party.

Go with the flow.
Traditions and celebrations can be hard to understand for those with autism, and expecting them to have the same anticipation and excitement as other children may lead to disappointment. Let go of the notion that a celebration should go a certain way for it to be a success. Instead, focus on making the event exciting and enjoyable for the whole family.

“This is the season of giving, and the best gift is grace,” says Slater. “Allow yourselves the ability to accept your new normal. Be thankful for small victories. Believe in recovery. And if Christmas morning doesn’t go as planned, December 26 is a brand-new day.”

Holiday Travel Tips

Whether you’re headed to the airport or taking a road trip to see long-distance family, traveling with a kiddo who has special needs can present some challenges. Here are a few tips to make it easier—now or when the pandemic is over.

Bring medications, medical equipment and a copy of your child’s medical records, just in case.
A doctor’s note explaining your child’s condition might also be helpful.

Pack items that make your child feel comfortable.
“Ask yourself, Does my child have issues with certain sounds or smells? If [they’re] sensitive to noises, you can bring noise-cancelling headphones and play your child’s favorite music,” says Twila Farrar, a licensed professional counselor and certified autism specialist at University Park Counseling & Testing Center. For a child who is sensitive to smells, consider bringing travel-size essential oils or something else that is pleasantly scented.

You’ll likely also want to bring along your kiddo’s usual pillow from home or a well-liked blanket or stuffed toy. (Be cautious about bringing something irreplaceable.)

Pack entertainment.
And lots of it. A goody bag with coloring books, crayons, a tablet and similar items will help keep them busy.

Driving? Map your route in advance.
This will allow you to plan out where you’ll stop for restroom breaks, get a favorite meal, etc., and let your child move around.

Be thoughtful about flights.
If possible, fly during a time of day when your child is most relaxed. Also consider that the airport tends to be busier first thing in the morning and right after work. When it comes to seats, sitting closer to the front of the plan can be helpful for kids who don’t do well in crowds (they’ll have fewer people in their sightline). You’ll also be able to disembark more quickly and have convenient bathroom access.

Before your flight, consider creating a social story that covers all aspects of the trip, suggests Janice A. Moran, who sees patients at Agape Psych Services in Arlington. “Include everything from packing to boarding the plane and so on,” she says. There are also books, apps and YouTube videos that can get kids more familiar with the process.

Give relatives a heads-up.
If you’re visiting family or friends who aren’t regularly around your child, make sure they’re aware of any special needs. Does your child get over-stimulated? Keep things low-key when possible, and set up a quiet space they can retreat to if needed.

Prepare kids, too.
Show your child photos of who they’ll be seeing (if they aren’t together regularly) before you leave, says Farrar. And talk about what to expect during the visit.

This article was originally published in December 2020.

Image: iStock