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Tips to help navigate the holidays with children who have sensory needs
Katie Stalter

Winter break is a time for joy, celebration, and family gatherings, but for children with sensory processing disorder, the disruptions to routines and increased stimuli can pose unique challenges.

Miriam School and Learning Center occupational therapists provide practical strategies to help parents and caregivers support children with sensory sensitivities during the winter break, emphasizing the importance of maintaining sensory input, incorporating movement breaks, and preparing for unfamiliar environments.

Maintaining Sensory Input

  • Fidgets and sensory tools: Integrate sensory-friendly tools like fidgets, stress balls, or textured items to provide tactile input and help children self-regulate in stimulating environments.

  • DIY obstacle courses: Create simple obstacle courses at home to offer proprioceptive input through activities like crawling, jumping, or balancing, which can contribute to a sense of body awareness and regulation.

  • Heavy work through chores: Involve children in household chores that provide opportunities for heavy work, such as carrying laundry baskets or lifting objects, helping them stay grounded and focused.

Preparing for Changes in Routine

  • Visual schedule of activities: Develop a visual schedule outlining daily activities to give children a clear understanding of what to expect, reducing anxiety associated with uncertainties.

  • Rules for the day: Set clear expectations and rules for the day, emphasizing the importance of communication and cooperation to ensure a smoother transition during breaks.

Navigating Unfamiliar Environments

  • Bring familiar snacks: Pack familiar snacks that children enjoy to provide a comforting and sensory-friendly option in new or crowded environments.

  • Inquire about quiet spaces: When attending gatherings or events, inquire about the availability of quiet spaces where children can retreat if they become overwhelmed, ensuring a sensory-friendly escape.

  • Limit family celebrations: Be mindful of the number and duration of family celebrations to prevent sensory overload. Opt for shorter gatherings or breaks to allow for downtime.

  • Pack comfort items: Pack a bag with calming items such as sensory cards, a stuffed animal, a favorite blanket, noise-canceling headphones, or earplugs to create a familiar and comforting sensory environment.

Morning Preparation

  • Arrive early: Arrive at events early to acclimate children to the surroundings before they become crowded, reducing the initial sensory impact.

  • Show and tell: Show children what items you've packed, explaining their purpose and how they can be used for comfort and regulation.

  • Outdoor movement: Encourage outdoor movement in the morning, even if briefly, to help children regulate their sensory systems and prepare for the day ahead.

Our OTs also want to remind parents and caregivers that it is always OK to ask for help! Reach out to other family members if you need help with tasks like running errands or wrapping presents, preparing any special snacks for a family gathering or even just spending some quiet time with your child.

With thoughtful preparation, children with sensory challenges can fully participate in the festivities during the holiday season. By incorporating sensory-friendly strategies, maintaining routines as much as possible, and proactively addressing potential challenges, parents and caregivers can create a supportive environment that allows every child to find joy during the winter break.

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