A Sensory Friendly Holiday

The best time of the year is approaching… the holidays! Compared to last year, the holidays of 2021 will luckily have that more familiar feel, with larger family gatherings and celebrations, due to the positive effects of the COVID-19 vaccine and the overall decrease in cases. How thankful we all are! This increase in normalcy comes hand-in-hand with an increase in excitement (as it should be!). Parties will be bigger, decorations will be grander, music will be louder… And because of this, it is essential to make accommodations for children with sensory challenges.

Ever been to a loud venue, where you felt overwhelmed by the noise, the sights, and/or the smells? It is an uncomfortable feeling, and the worst part is when the environment cannot be avoided. This feeling, unfortunately, is often felt by children with sensory challenges, even in a relatively “calm” environment. Now imagine what they might feel in a loud, celebratory environment. Not only is it likely that they feel overwhelmed, but it is also likely that they feel stressed, as some children have not yet acquired the skills needed to effectively communicate or independently remove themselves from a situation.

Knowing this information, beforehand, can be extremely helpful. A caregiver can prepare beforehand, and help pave the path for a more comfortable, enjoyable experience.

Below are some helpful tips:

Talk to your Child
Expectations make a difference for everyone. It is important to talk to your child, depending on his/her age, about what to expect. Let your child know that the noise level will be loud, and there may be a lot of people. Use visuals and social stories to explain, as visuals provide extra support and increase understanding. If your child expects the environment, it may help reduce the element of surprise which, in turn, may reduce stress level

Plan for “Noise Breaks”
As the caregiver, seek out quiet areas that your child can go to for a “noise break”. We all need that break sometimes, but children with sensory challenges will need this more frequently. If the holiday party is at your house, let him/her know that it is okay to remain in a quiet room for a little while. If the holiday party is at someone else’s, find a quieter space to intermittently practice deep breathing and other calming strategies. If noise levels are unavoidable, it is also recommended to look into noise cancelling headphones/earphones

Plan for Seating Arrangement
It is recommended to strategize about best possible seating arrangements for your child, to reduce overall sensory stimulation. For example, corner seats at the dinner table may be better than sitting in the middle of a crowded table, as your child can have easier access to remove himself/herself, as needed. Additionally, if he/she is sensitive to touch, there is less likelihood to be brushed up against

Be Flexible about Social Interaction
Instead of greeting family members/friends with physical touch (e.g., handshakes, hugs, high fives), let your child know that it’s okay to provide a greeting via a simple wave or blowing a kiss. With all of the extra sensory stimulation due to the holidays, it is important to reduce pressure of social engagement and physical acts of affection.

Bring Comfort Items
If the holiday party is outside of the home, bringing a comfort item (e.g., blanket, favorite toy) can significantly reduce feelings of stress. Being in an unfamiliar environment can be extra difficult for children with sensory challenges; however, bringing a comfort item is noted to be calming due to the positive associations and familiarity of it.

It is so exciting that this holiday season is approaching, especially since the world has acquired more resources and information on how to protect our health. We hope these tips help your child feel calm and more regulated during these special times.

The family at Exceptional Speech Therapy wishes you a very happy, safe, and healthy holiday season!


Written by: Andrea Scola, M.S. CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist & Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer