Sensory & The Holidays

Can you believe that it’s already December? How did that happen? I never feel ready to take on the holiday season; I tend to forget how stressful it is to be out of my routine (hello, holiday foods and social events) and having additional demands (What do I get my niece who has everything?).

Yesterday I took a course called “Using the Science of Sensory Process to Survive the Holidays” by Rondalyn Varney Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA - AOTA. You can tell that she knows what she’s talking about because of the many letters that come after her name. 😊 She’s an occupational therapist, researcher, author, and the parent of a child with sensory needs. Her course helped me to think about the holidays differently. Since I’m not an OT, I looked for some input from some.

It’s important to remember that holidays are disruptions to our daily routines. All children rely on routines to feel calm and comfortable, and it’s especially true for neurodiverse children (children on the autism spectrum, children with SPD, children with ADHD, etc... ). Holiday traditions and activities might be wonderful changes (and feel fun and exciting to most of us!), but your routines as a family (the routines that children find stabilizing and calming) are interrupted. Dr. Whitney’s examples included having a tree in the house and rooms where items have moved for holiday decorations. She also spoke about how disruptions to routines can leave children feeling disorganized internally. While we might wait all year in excited anticipation for these out-of-the-ordinary traditions, those with challenges with sensory processing, anxiety, or regulation can find these fun things to be overwhelming or disregulating.

Everyone recommends that you plan and prepare your kiddos as much as possible for events, changes in their environment, or different expectations. Try a social story, countdown calendar, or any visual support to help them anticipate changes. Whatever way that you choose, be prepared to try it more than once; consistency is key.

Jennifer Mulder is a psychologist with a chronic illness and has shared some of her coping strategies for being sensory overloaded. They aren’t specific to holidays, but it can be helpful reference for family members. It’s also a nice reminder that adults experience sensory overload.

Here’s a video highlighting 10 sensory tips. Cara Koscinski, who is an OT and has sons with special needs, has written a series of blogs about celebrating the holidays. The blogs are from pre-COVID times, but many of the tips are still relevant.

 o   Instead of a posed picture of the whole family  -> try posed pictures of a group (the groups could be kids and parents or a parent and a kiddo), using candid pictures, or creating a collage of individual pictures.
o   Instead of wearing a festive sweater (they can be itchy) ->  offer an alternative of a festive hat, socks, or mittens.
o   Instead of cookies (if you’re trying to limit sugar) -> use festive cookie cutters to make mealtime special- rice, macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, mashed potatoes would work!
o   It can be tempting to “take a break” from seeing your regular therapists, but remember, their school routine is already disrupted, so keeping your appointments with your OTs and Speech therapists will help ground, regulate, and calm your kiddo.

The holidays can be stressful. It’s easy to get caught up with creating a “perfect” day or season. So take a step back and think about what is important to you as a family. I hope this is helpful. Enjoy the season!
Mary can be reached at