Tips for the Month
Sensory Smart Holiday Tips
Between disruptions in everyday routines, crowded stores blasting holiday music, special foods, and demands for “best” behavior, holidays can be stressful for everyone. Happily, as a sensory smart parent, there is so much you can do to help.
Kids who struggle with changes in daily routines do best when prepared in advance. Well before any special occasion, discuss what will happen before, during, and after the big day. For example, if you are going to Grandma’s house for the holiday, review what to bring, what to wear, who will be there, and the general sequence of events. You can explain why we celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa using picture books if that helps. Mark off days on a calendar as the event approaches. By reducing unwelcome surprises, your child will be better able to predict what will happen next and be more empowered to organize his behavior.
During any school vacation, try to stick to a normal schedule like having the same bedtime and wake-up time each day so you don’t disrupt your child’s sleep-wake cycle. This is especially important for a child who tends to be a problem sleeper. Of course, if you are taking your child to an evening celebration, your ability to control this may go right out the window. Your child may stay up much later than usual, and either awaken at his regular time skipping several hours of sleep, or sleep late and miss out on several hours of daytime activity. If your child’s sleep schedule is disrupted, get it back on track by readjusting it bit-by-bit, making bedtime 10 to 15 minutes earlier each day.
The holidays are great for working on fine motor skills. Enter the name of the holiday into your computer browser to holiday theme activities such as dot-to-dots, mazes, crossword puzzles and more. For example, go to Google and enter “Chanukah mazes” or “Christmas coloring pages”). If your child needs handwriting practice, have her write place cards if it’s a big sit-down meal. This will also help your child anticipate who will sit next to her, and review what she might discuss during the meal.
Making holiday decorations can help your child feel more engaged in the celebration. Children of all ages that I work with love making snowpeople by gluing together Styrofoam balls with the tops cut flat and adding a felt face with wiggly eyes, carrot stick nose, and so on. Kids also love to glue large sequins or buttons onto a tree cut out from green construction paper or felt as well as make their own tree ornaments. Your child could also can make a Kwanzaa Kinara or a Menorah out of Sculpey or clay. You will find plenty of easy craft ideas in holiday season magazines, especially those geared toward kids.
If your child dislikes getting messy, use the tactile desensitization techniques your OT shows you so your child feels more comfortable touching “yucky” materials. If your child hates touching mushy wet textures, provide a longhandled paintbrush and vinyl gloves. If your child insists on washing hands every time he gets a speck of paint or glue on them, try to extend the experience before wash-up (let’s just paint this little part and then we’ll go wash up), or keep a damp sponge or paper towels nearby so your child can wipe off the mess without totally disengaging from the activity.
Cooking is also a wonderful sensory experience that lets your child participate in holiday preparation. Ask your child to help you write the shopping list. Go to the supermarket when it’s not too busy and have your child help you find things on the shelves. You can do this verbally (can you find the carrots in the produce aisle?) or visually (can you find the cookies on the shelf that match the cookies in this photo?). Try to not take your child to the supermarket if you are in a rush or it’s the busiest time. All of the stimulation of the food, lighting, shopping carts, and people may be tolerable only when you and the store are calm. At home, let your child help you pour, mix, blend, and decorate holiday food. Even if you’re going to someone else’s home to celebrate, you and your child can prepare a special side dish or dessert to bring along.
When gift shopping, shop when stores are less crowded or shop online. If you MUST take your child into busy stores, plan ahead and bring sensory comforts such as chewing gum and other oral comforts, earplugs or favorite music with headphones, a baseball cap or visor to protect sensitive eyes from downcast lighting, and so on.
Finally, just because everyone plans to dress up for the holidays doesn’t mean it’s worth forcing your child into clothing that will make him miserable. Scratchy lace and bows on party dresses may be intolerable. Your son may be unable to handle a tie and dress shoes. But you never know, your child may love putting on a special outfit for a special occasion. Before the event, try on any new clothes and bring a change of clothing just in case. Or opt for clothing you know your child wears happily even if it’s simply what he wears every day. As always, the key is to be flexible!
At the Holiday Gathering
Kids who tend to be sensory seekers may thrive on the novelty of a group gathering and find that the noise and activity revs them up. Kids who are supersensitive will tend to stay on the sidelines and risk becoming overwhelmed because too much noise, too many things to look at, too many people, and too much to process feel like an assault.
It’s best to make a plan in advance with your child about what to do if he starts to feel overloaded or you noticed he’s getting too wired. It’s better for your child to take a break than to feel trapped in a situation he can’t tolerate. At home, your child can politely excuse herself to go to her room if she needs time to regroup. If you’re at someone else’s home, you will need to work out a “safe space” your child can retreat to. Explain this to your host and ask where a good place might be.
A holiday gathering can be a great time to work on social skills within reason. Let your child know that he is expected to greet people, with your help if necessary. If your child dislikes hugs, teach him to stick out his hand for a handshake. You may need to monitor this if you have a relative that insists on a big bear hug that your child finds unbearable, letting this person you would appreciate their understanding and cooperation.
Prompt your child to say hello while making eye contact but don’t force it. Group gatherings have multiple sensory and information processing demands. Some people avoid making eye contact due to visual distortions, or to avoid being distracted by facial expressions, or because they struggle to process visual and auditory input simultaneously. A reasonable goal would be for your child to make brief eye contact with the person. Do not insist on having him maintain eye contact throughout a conversation if you’ve actually gotten your child to have a sustained interaction.
Bring along a busy bag, regardless of your child’s age. For a younger child, washable crayon or markers, paper, coloring books, playdoh, picture books, beloved stuffed toys, and favorite music may come in handy to help soothe your child or keep her behaving at her best. For an older child, a game, book, or music may be important take-alongs. Of course you want your child to interact with others, but if he needs a break, such tools can be lifesavers. Remember, you are working toward getting your child to stay on an even keel in a potentially rocky situation.
Don’t forget to give your child the sensory input his body craves. This is a good time to explain your child’s sensory needs and how you are helping. If your child needs to jump and crash 20 times before sitting down to eat, do it. Go outside before or after a big meal (or during in case of an impending meltdown) in order to run, march, hop, skip around the block, walk through a pile of crunchy leaves, stomp in the snow. Bring along your brush if you are doing a deep touch pressure program.
Don’t insist (or let others insist) that your child try something “disgusting” just because it’s the typical holiday food. A holiday gathering is not a therapy session. Go ahead and offer your child some turkey, for example, because this may be the time she’ll finally try it, especially if her favorite cousin seems likes it. If you know your child most likely will not eat what’s being served, bring along something you know she will eat. Others may think you’re spoiling your child (“just send her to my house for a week and she’ll eat everything”) but that’s far better than dealing with food battles and tantrums. Just explain that you are working on expanding on food choices, and that you’d appreciate others not making it their business.
Bring along “safe” desserts you know your child likes, but recognize that it’s going to be hard to maintain your no-sugar rule when everyone else is enjoying cookies and pies. If your child doesn’t have allergies, this may be the time for a special treat. Be prepared for behavioral reactions such as increased activity level and crankiness. If you know your child gets hyper after eating sugar, plan an intense physical activity like climbing stairs or sledding.
Finally, bring along your child’s pillow and possibly bedding if she is very sensitive and you plan to stay overnight. Remember to bring a nightlight, white noise machine, or any other bedtime necessity.
Very best wishes for the holidays!
Adapted from the November-December 2010 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine
Sensory Smart Winter Tips
While it’s tempting to hibernate through the winter and to increase “screen time” (TV, computer, Wii), be sure to continue active sensory diet play during the winter months to keep brains and bodies functioning at their best. Here are some sensory smart ideas you can use to help your child tolerate winter clothing and have fun during the cold weather.
Desensitize before going out.
- Slough off itchy dead skin cells with an exfoliant. You can purchase excellent preparations online or in a store or make one at home, which can be a fun sensory activity in itself. For a homemade exfoliant, mix a dry, coarse ingredient like sugar, ground almonds, or corn flour with a moist, smooth ingredient like honey or olive oil. Rub it on the skin using gentle circular motions to avoid irritating skin, and don’t use on inflamed or damaged skin or around the eye or genital area. Focus on legs and feet, back, arms and hands.
- Right after a bath or shower, slather on and firmly massage in high-quality skin moisturizer, focusing on extra-sensitive parts like hands and feet. Again, you can use store-bought preparation or try making one yourself. There are lots of recipes on the Internet.
- Provide sensory input before piling on the cold weather gear. Provide a deep pressure scalp massage before putting on a hat. Give deep pressure to the hands and feet, along with joint compressions, before putting on boots and gloves. Discuss desensitization techniques with an occupational therapist.
- Many kids cannot tolerate loose layers moving against their skin. Try putting on a snug shirt and leggings before piling on the rest of the layers. You may also find that your child does better with a tighter fitting hat and gloves along with snug socks. Or, the absolute reverse may be true: your child may do best with loose layers against his skin. Also experiment with the weight of the clothing. Some kids are calmed by a lot of heavy layers (including a weighted vest) while it may really aggravate other children. Lighter layers include down and polar fleece. Heavier layers include wool. Be creative. While your child may not be able to tolerate the feel of snowpants, she may be warm and happy with fleece leggings worn under lightweight rain pants. While he refuse to wear a hat, he may be fine with a hood.
- Watch out for overheating. There’s a tendency to pile on clothing while still indoors, and some kids just can’t tolerate getting heated up. You may need to put on the final layers outdoors. It’s better to have your child ask for his hat when he realizes that his ears are cold than to have him meltdown in the house and refuse to wear his hat because his ears are burning.
Have fun out there!
- Set up an indoor sensory bin. Get a big plastic bin with a cover that holds at least 20 gallons. Get the largest size your child can reach into from a sitting position without pulling it over, or one that’s big enough to sit in with several toys. Then fill it about halfway with inexpensive dry rice and beans. Add some plastic cups, spoons, and small plastic toys. Have your child pour rice and beans from cup to cup, use spoons to fill cups, bury and find “treasures,” sort out and count beans, and do other interesting things. Best of all, a sensory bin is a fun way to desensitize hands (and feet if they stand in it barefoot!).
- If your child has trouble tolerating snow or ice, you can use your sensory bin to work on that too. Take out the usual contents and fill it snow or even ice cubes. Try building a snow pyramid or an ice cube igloo.
- Make an outdoor snow castle using buckets. Carrying heavy snow from one place to another provides wonderful proprioceptive input.
- Sledding is great fun, as is going downhill on a piece of cardboard or cafeteria tray. All great vestibular input for sensory seekers, but for kids who tend to be sensory avoiders, just watching others or going downhill slowly on your lap may be challenging enough.
- For crashers and bangers, set up a landing pad in the snow.
- This is a great time for sensory seeking kids who love to ski, sled, ice skate, and have snowball fights. For oversensitive kids, just walking around in the snow and making snow angels can be completely amusing and a sensory smart way to spend a wintry day.
- If your child is hyposensitive to temperature, he or she may not have those numb, achy warning signs about being too cold. Be sure to stop and visually check your child’s hands, ears, nose, and even feet every so often to keep winter play safe.
See Raising a Sensory Smart Child for more on advocating for your child at school, handling holidays and parties, and practical solutions for issues such as grooming, dressing, picky eating, and more.
© 2012 Lindsey Biel