Tips to support children with sensory challenges at Christmas
By Kim Griffin, occupational therapist
(Details on Kim's Christmas giveaway can be found at the end of this blog)
As a quick introduction for those not familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder, it is a term that describes the challenges children, and adults, have when their brains do not interpret the sensory messages received from their body effectively. The sensory information goes into their brain but is not always organised into a response that is necessarily expected for the environment or situation. This could include being sensitive to sounds or touch or seeking out extra movement to help with organisation. Sensory processing challenges are very common in autism and can also lead to sensory overload.
Whilst I would love to dive right in with sensory suggestions and supports, the first tip is actually about being prepared.
Tip 1 – Be prepared
This time of year can often be very off schedule. There are lots of things to do and often, unfortunately, there can be added stress associated with fitting everything and everyone in. A key thing that you can do to help children with sensory processing challenges is to be well prepared.
You know your child. Unless it’s your first Christmas with them, you also likely know their thresholds and what helps them to regulate. Use this information to help with your schedule and planning. Give yourself permission to put their needs first when making commitments and try to find a balance between what you want to achieve and what you feel they, and you will comfortably manage.
Use timetabling and visual schedules. Often when children are well settled these are not needed and are almost forgotten about. However, during more chaotic times such as Christmas, they can be a big help. You can use them to talk about sensory experiences that might be different. For example: “We are going to the fireworks, they will be loud but you can take your ear defenders and we can leave when you need to.” They can also help to keep you on schedule and may just make the difference between a smooth day and a meltdown.
LINK TO VISUAL RESOURCE
Tip 2 – Know your child’s triggers
This tip is an extension of tip one. It’s really helpful to know your child’s triggers and to plan within and around them. I am sandwiching this tip between planning and regulation for a good reason. It is helpful to be prepared for situations that might cause sensory overload and use with regulation beforehand and sensory strategies if required.
Tip 3 – Remember to regulate
As there are so many new experiences and so much excitement during this period, regulation is key. This is especially true for children that experience sensory overload. All children are different but, again, you know your child. Think about what helps them to regulate. Is it reading a book or jumping on the trampoline? Is it a massage or a bath? Is it a chew or their favourite toy? These supports, whether sensory or not, can be used before, during and after activities to help your child to regulate. Go back to your plan and make sure you have scheduled them in!
Tip 4 – New foods!
Many children with sensory challenges also have difficulties with new and different foods. It can sometimes help to include Christmas food into meals in the lead up to Christmas Day so that the food is no longer new and unfamiliar. These days most Christmas fare is available in shops from early October so it’s not difficult to find. Also, thinking ahead to the day and including something you know your child will eat on the menu can help to reduce stress.
I know some of the above suggestions might feel like taking the ‘magic’ out of Christmas. However, if they help secure a smoother day for a child with sensory processing challenges, it might turn out to be more magical for them and their family.
Enter Kim's Christmas Giveaway!
Sensory Processing: What’s the Fuss? “This five-hour course explores sensory processing; what it might look like and discusses when and why you might use different sensory strategies.”
About the author
Kim is an occupational therapist who has been supporting children, schools, and families for over 15 years. She has extensive experience working with children who have sensory and/or motor skill challenges, including those with autism and dyslexia. Her current focus is on creating online sensory resources, training, and motor skill development programmes for schools, teachers and parents.