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Holiday Fun for Kids with Sensory Issues

By Jennifer Jones, LMHC, BCBA

Parties and family gatherings, special food, treats and twinkling lights – what’s not to like about the holidays? Plenty, for kids with autism and other sensory challenges. Many are easily overwhelmed by new sights and sounds.

Spending time with relatives you rarely see, eating unusual food, going new places and opening presents is a lot to take in, especially when the celebration goes on for days.

Try these tips to make the holidays more fun for kids with autism and sensory issues.

  1. Get Ready. Read books, watch videos and talk about the holidays well in advance so they’re more familiar. Spend some time looking at pictures of people you’ll see at events. Extended family and friends aren’t strangers to you, but your son may not remember them from last year. The more people he recognizes, the more relaxed he’ll be.
  2. Detour Around Food Fights. Special foods are a big part of holidays, but it’s not unusual for children on the spectrum to have specific eating habits or be on a restricted diet. If your daughter is open to trying new foods, make some in advance and see how it goes. If not, bring meals, snacks and treats you know she’ll enjoy. Tell the hosts ahead of time so they aren’t surprised and don’t push the issue.
  3. Find a Quiet Space. The energy of holiday gatherings is exciting, but the noise and activity can be too much for kids with autism. As soon as you get to a party, scope out a den or space away from the action where you can take your son if you see signs of distress. Having favorite toys and comfort items on hand can help soothe him.
  4. Plan for Presents. Many kids get over-stimulated by lots of presents and waiting to open their gifts. One idea is to give your child an especially desirable present right away so she’s occupied with something fun and doesn’t have to wait. If it’s difficult for her to focus on more than one or two things, save gifts and give them to your child over several days.
  5. Make it Sensory-Friendly. Visiting Santa is a special experience, but waiting in line with lots of noisy kids can be very difficult. Some organizations offer sensory-friendly Santa experiences. Also try calling your local mall. Most malls can let you know when the wait time is shortest, and many will provide an escort to the front of the line.
  6. Build New Traditions. Holiday events don’t need to be big or loud to be meaningful. Sledding with another family, having a cookie-decorating party with cousins or hosting a winter picnic in front of the fireplace can build wonderful memories for the entire family with less anxiety for kids on the spectrum.
  7. Be Realistic. Every parent wants their child to have a wonderful holiday, but it’s helpful to focus on what your child can manage and enjoy.

If your child sits at the dinner table for five minutes, greets a distant relative in whatever way he usually says hello or rejoins the party after retreating to a quiet place, that’s a success worth celebrating.

Happy memories are built over years. If a holiday activity, party or event doesn’t go as well as you’d like this year, there are many opportunities to come. Trying to make the holiday season perfect is a recipe for stress and disappointment. A new definition might help: The “perfect” holiday season is one that works for your family this year

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