The holidays are filled with magic and wonder. The colorful lights sparkle and dance around our trees and set holiday venues aglow. The sounds of the season fill our homes and shopping malls with holiday music and jingle bells galore. We put on our most festive attire when we see family and friends and attend special events.
Then, as the scent of freshly baked cookies and pies floats through the room, we sit down to eat the unique foods that remind us of our childhood holidays with the hope of passing on the same traditions to our children.
Some kids can’t get enough of the feast for the senses that the holiday season brings. But for children with sensory processing disorder, or SPD, the holidays can be overwhelming and even frightening. The same lively sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes that bring so much joy to many can have the opposite effect on little ones with SPD, which can be isolating for them and their families.
We’re here with holiday help for families managing the challenges of sensory processing disorder. Read on to learn more.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing disorder in children is a neurological condition that impacts the way their brain processes information from the senses. People with sensory processing disorder may be extra sensitive to or not react to sensory input, depending on how they are affected.
Examples of sensory input may include:
Children who have SPD may have an aversion to things that overstimulate their senses, such as loud noises, crowded environments, bright lights, intense smells and/or certain textures, including food. They may also seek out additional sensory experiences when understimulated. Many children with sensory processing disorder are also on the autism spectrum.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder
Kids who are hypersensitive, or overstimulated, by sensory input may experience the following symptoms:
- A low pain threshold
- Behavioral challenges
- Covering eyes or ears frequently
- Difficulty controlling their emotions
- Difficulty focusing attention
- Feeling that soft touches are too hard
- Food preferences or gagging when eating foods of certain textures
- Resisting hugs or sudden touches
Sensory hyposensitivity, or kids who seek out sensory stimulation, may show signs such as:
- A high pain threshold
- Bumping into walls
- Crashing into other people or things
- Giving big hugs
- Not understanding personal space
- Putting things into their mouth
- Rocking and swaying
- Touching things
Tips to Help Kids with SPD Cope During the Holidays
Given all the extra and unusual sensory information and stimulating events during the holidays, we know kids with SPD and their families can use additional support. Here are some ideas to help keep your child calm and joyful this holiday season.
Prepare in Advance
The holiday season can often be off-schedule and easily deviate from familiar routines. This can be stressful even for those without sensory challenges. A key to helping children with sensory processing disorder is to be well prepared. It’s really helpful to know your child’s sensory triggers and to use this knowledge to your advantage, preparing for situations that you think might cause sensory overload.
Talk to your child about special events and what kind of sensory information will be present beforehand so they know what’s coming. Bring anything that helps them, such as their favorite stuffed toy, familiar snacks and noise-canceling earphones.
Consider New Activities and the Atmosphere of Events
Some events and new activities might just be too long or too big. Think about your child’s triggers and what events they have successfully attended in the past. How long was the event? How many people attended? What was the venue like? What was the noise level? Do they feel more comfortable at home? Is it helpful to have an outdoor space?
Some events might feel like they can’t be missed. Try to strike a balance that will support your child to comfortably attend if they’re able. Sometimes though, you can’t “do it all,” especially when you have an extra sensitive person in your family.
Introduce New Foods With Care
It’s common for children with sensory processing disorder to have difficulty with new and unfamiliar foods. One suggestion is to slowly introduce and include holiday food as you lead up to the holiday season. This way, the food is no longer new.
Think ahead to the holiday itself and try to include something you know your child loves and will eat on the menu. This will help reduce stress for everyone.
Be Mindful With Presents
Gifts can be an exciting part of the holidays, but can be stressful for some. If your child has sensitivities to certain fabrics or strong preferences for clothing, it can be helpful to let other gift-givers know in advance. Providing a wish list can also be useful.
Noisy toys can also be a challenge. When opening presents that make noise, it can help to give your child advanced warning of the sound. Be mindful of others’ noisy toys around your child as well.
In addition, some children find the element of surprise to be overwhelming. If this is the case for your child, it can help to open presents over a longer period or let them know ahead of time when their preferred gift is coming.
With You for the Special Holiday Moments
Your child has the brightest minds in pediatric health care to support their sensory challenges at AdventHealth. Our network of world-class pediatric doctors includes more than 150 subspecialists in neurology and much more.
We’re here for you during the holidays and every day, supporting your child’s healthy growth and development through evidence-based, whole-person medical treatments for kids at every age and every stage.
Learn more about how we can support your child in body, mind and spirit here.