For most of us, it’s a happy time of year. The holidays bring joy, draw families together, and create lasting memories for your children. But for children with sensory processing disorder, these fun-filled times can be a living nightmare.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. If your child has SPD, that does not mean he or she has autism. However, almost all children with autism also have SPD.
The holidays present a uniquely rough situation for kids with SPD, and here’s why:
Children with sensory processing disorder filter sensory information in a different way than typical children. In many cases, certain sights, smells, and sounds that we take for granted trigger a “fight or flight” reaction in a child, and we may not even realize it. That means ordinary signals like a barking dog, the strong smell of hot food or perfume, or the glitter of sequins on Aunt Mary’s sweater can be interpreted by the child the same way as we would interpret a car hurtling toward us a high speed.
The result is a child’s total meltdown.
(Think“AAAAAAAUUUUGH!AAAAAAAUUUUUGH! AAAAAAAUUUUUGH!”), or at least a much-diminished ability to “hold it together” in the face of this sensory onslaught.
Busy shopping malls, family parties and other situations where there are lots of sights, smells and sounds put your child in a much-compromised situation. He or she is being overwhelmed by sensory input, and may not be able to handle it.
When planning your holiday, keep your child with SPD in mind. Explain SPD to family members in advance of your party. Don’t wait until your child is having a meltdown to grope around for an eloquent explanation. Instead, talk to family members ahead of time. Prepare a concise explanation that will put them in the know and prepare them to help your child through the occasion.
For example, “Aunt Mary, I’m looking forward to seeing you at our holiday party. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Billy has a challenge with sensory integration. That means he has a hard time in situations where there’s a lot of strong sights, smells, and sounds. I hope you can understand that he may not quite be himself.”
If you are hosting the party, you may consider asking your guests not to wear perfume or cologne. You may also want to be sensitive to your child’s needs by keeping background music at a low, soothing decibel, and going easy on the lighting. You can also prepare a quiet place where your child can go to get away from the hullaballoo.
Prepare a selection of books, a tablet, and a set of headphones your child can put on to tune out the background noise. If your child is old enough to understand, talk to him or her about the party before hand. Let him/her know what to expect, and ensure him or her that you are there to help. Role-play and problem solve together to prepare for the event.
A little coaching can go a long way. Like in any other situation, the more thought and planning you put into this, the more likely you are to succeed.
By Chaya Glatt