Sensory Overload: Surviving the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us. Laughter and songs all around, baked goods aroma fill the air, twinkle lights on every corner, busy crowds at every turn. The holidays provide an exciting atmosphere, what we neglect to mention is the sensory overload that can easily be experienced. Families experience hard times when they have a child with sensory integration difficulties.
How to identify sensory overload in your child
Increased arousal: Your child has turned into a busy bee and is moving much more quickly than usual. Their safety awareness has decreased and you see risky behaviors (i.e. increased jumping from objects around the house).
Bothered by noise: You’ve noticed an increase in your child’s reaction to auditory stimuli. Sounds that your child once tolerated are now triggers.
Increased aggression: Your child is hitting, kicking, and pushing more frequently and demonstrated less patience.
Increased meltdowns: You’ve watched your child increase the number of what appears to be out of nowhere tantrums.

Like any difficult situation, we are here to provide some ideas to help your family survive the holiday festivities (shopping, parties, etc.).
• Visual schedules: Help your child anticipate changes in the daily routine, especially when significant sensory experiences are involved (i.e. shopping malls, caroling, holiday baking, holiday parties, etc.).
• Headphones: Allow your child to tune out some of the auditory stimulation in crowded areas if they are unavoidable.
• Avoid crowded areas: While during the holidays it appears as every corner has an increased number of people, choose to take your child to places during non-peak hours to reduce the amount if individuals he or she will come in contact with.
• Adapt holiday traditions: For your child with sensory integration difficulties, you may have to adapt traditions. Reduce the amount of multi-sensory input during any given tradition and encourage your child to participate with the parts he or she is comfortable with (i.e. caroling in a small group instead of a large group; open presents one person at a time to decrease auditory and visual input; go early to holiday parties and leave before a large crowd accumulates).
• Orient the child to new spaces: Holiday events are unavoidable, so help your child feel more comfortable by showing him or her around the space.
• Ease your child into holiday gatherings: Provide others with information ahead of time about how to make your child feel comfortable. Allow your child to be introduced to one or two people at a time.
• Bring a comfort item: Holiday events are filled with a lot of new people, allow the children to bring a comfort item.
• Take breaks: As needed, allows your child to take a break during overwhelming situations.
o Breathing breaks: Encourage your child to do deep breathing to reduce stress and calm the nervous system.
o Movement breaks: Provide your child with a menu of appropriate options to get in movement during holiday activities (e.g. animal walks, jumping jacks, wall push-ups, chair-push ups, big squeezes, deliver presents, etc.).

By Dr. Baily Zubel, OTD, OTR/L