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Sensory Processing Disorder and the Holidays

Sensory Integration Disorder, also known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), leads to problems receiving and responding to external stimuli. Much like autism, SPD can be viewed like a spectrum, with sensitivities that range from mild to debilitating. As is true of everybody, children with SPD experience the world in a unique way. At times, it can be distressing under the wrong circumstances. Trouble processing the information from our senses can lead to a variety of issues, including:

·      Trouble communicating

·      Uncoordinated movement, improper balance and gait

·      Spatial orientation difficulty

·      Pain and discomfort

·      Dietary restrictions

·      Anxiety and depression

·      Learning disabilities

While sensory issues may be a lifelong struggle, some are particular problems that arise during the holidays. Crowds, new foods and even family members can wreak havoc on the delicate balance most children struggle to maintain. You must remember that SPD outbursts and sensitivities aren’t about a child being bad or spoiled. So, start off this holiday season right! Make a plan to conquer sensory issues and help your children make the most of these special times.


Let’s face it, the holidays almost always mean large crowds. Whether it is the mall or the grocery store, you just can’t escape the last minute shopping. Don’t let that added stress rob your family of holiday cheer. You know your child and what may set them off. If crowds distress your child, find ways to avoid the sensory overload. That doesn’t mean leaving your child at home all the time; that can be dangerous, and children may feel like they are being left out or ostracized because of their condition.

Consider shopping at non-peak hours to help your child become accustomed to the larger crowds. Can’t change your schedule? No problem, try these tips:

·      If the noise is a problem, using a music player with headphones can be a great way to keep constant, manageable sound levels.

·      If the lights, crowds and excitement provide too much visual stimulation, try sunglasses or allow your child to play a game while you push them along in a cart or stroller.

·      Maybe your little one needs a physical touch to stay calm. Try weighted vests and ankle weights to provide constant pressure and keep children from running off.

·      Bring along their favorite toy, or fidget items, to keep their attention. These familiar items can also provide the sensory stimuli your child may need to get through a tough day of shopping.

Family and Friends

Just like a crowd in the mall, family members, party guests and special visitors can be tough to handle for children with sensory issues. A well-intentioned aunt’s hug could be uncomfortable, stressful and downright painful for some children with SPD. And houseguests can cause over-stimulation issues just like a large crowd in the grocery store. Try to avoid these issues by planning ahead. If you are having a party, make sure your children have a place to play or nap alone in a quiet area. If guests are staying overnight, avoid changing your children’s routine. It might mean a night on the sofa bed for you, but it could mean the world to your child.

Holiday Feast

For most people the holidays also mean big meals. After all, it is a great time for family and friends to catch up over some delicious home-cooked food. But while you are adding to your waistline, it could be adding to your child’s anxiety.

One common issue for children with SPD is oral defensiveness, and it could lead them to be a particularly picky eater. Even though you may spend all year working on this with your child, the holidays often bring with them specific seasonal or traditional family dishes that are only eaten once or twice a year. Here are a few ways to approach the meal:

·      Routine – First, it is a good idea to serve meals on the same routine. If you eat meals around 1:00 pm and 6:00 pm, plan your holiday meals on the same schedule. Also, set the table the same. Even though there may be more food at the table and more plates, keep the placement of knives, forks, spoons, glasses, etc. the same.

·      Special dishes – With so many family members and friends bringing dishes, there are bound to be items that children don’t like (honestly, there are probably dishes some adults don’t like either). Make sure to inform your guests of your child’s dietary issues when it is appropriate; that simple gesture may help avoid any confusion or hurt feelings.

When you are preparing dishes, plan for your child’s dietary needs. That could be as simple as making your mashed potatoes a certain consistency or by chopping vegetables in smaller sizes. Maybe it means you avoid some dishes entirely. Whatever works.

At mealtime, allow your child to explore new foods, albeit discreetly and respectfully. Yes, that means it is okay to let them play with their food. It will allow them an opportunity to become comfortable with new textures, smells and tastes. If you know that they simply cannot handle the food that is generally served, don’t sweat it. Just make one or two of their non-seasonal favorites; like we said earlier, everybody doesn’t have to eat everything. The options will make them more comfortable and help them feel like they are in control of their diet.

·      Reward good behavior with praise or special treats. Children act out naturally, so don’t underestimate how difficult it could be for a child with SPD to handle the new foods, distractions and larger crowd at the table. It is a big deal to make it through dinner successfully, so reward it with their favorite dessert, extra play time or special praise.

Finally, just make sure you have fun! The holidays are supposed to be merry, and in today’s fast paced world we rarely get a chance to catch up with our friends and family from out of town. Avoid any frustration by nipping problems in the bud. Your careful planning and attention to detail will make it a happy holiday for everybody involved.

For more information on Interactive Metronome contact LifeFit BrainFit at 906-774-5833 or

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