Sensory Sensitivity and the Holidays: What You Should Know

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — December 5, 2018 — 4 min read
The holidays present challenges for everyone, but can be especially difficult for individuals with sensory sensitivities including those with intellectual or other developmental disabilities (IDD).

More lights, more sounds, more people and disrupted routines all can lead to a crisis for the individual with an IDD diagnosis. Paying special attention to your holiday plans can help make events fun for everyone. The key ingredient is planning.

Having a backup plan for things that may not go as originally planned can help prevent a crisis for an individual with an IDD. For example, one popular retailer had a technical glitch with its gift cards in the past that caused the cards to show a zero balance when they still contained funds. When some of Cardinal Innovations’ members who are diagnosed with an IDD tried to use their gift cards, they didn’t work. For some, that meant a crisis at the store and calls started coming into Cardinal Innovations about what to do.

Cardinal Innovations clinicians recommend being prepared with a Plan B for times when things don’t go as planned. Talk about your best plan. Then discuss your good plan, a backup that you can control.

So, if your Aunt Joan can’t come see you for Christmas as planned, you go to the secondary plan to watch your favorite Christmas movie and make hot cocoa. This secondary plan should be something you and the individual with an IDD have decided ahead of time.

Knowing what to expect can keep everyone happier through the holidays. Prepare the individual with IDD for what is going to happen – the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that can be expected at a holiday event and what might not go as planned.

Also, be mindful of sensitivities. If they have sensitivities, it might not be a good idea to take them to the light show or the crowded mall. That may not be something they’d enjoy.

The Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Resource Center online offered the following recommendations based on different sensitivities:
  • Sound: Bring ear plugs, noise-blocking headphones or headphones with calming music
  • Space: If you attend a crowded event, find a quiet, safe space to retreat to if over-stimulated
  • Movement: At events that require sitting still and being quiet, include time to move in your plans – jumping jacks, wall push-ups, touching your toes
  • Touch: Dress for comfort and avoid conflicts over what to wear ahead of the event
  • Food: Bring food your child will eat. Don’t rely on a party host to have choices that are agreeable to your child.
  • Routines: Prepare for changes by talking about what will happen. Use pictures. List activities by the hour, day or week depending on the individual’s needs.
  • Relax: The individual with an IDD may sense and mirror your stress level or mood, so remember that this is supposed to be fun and relax. 

Autism Speaks partners with Cherry Hill Programs to provide sensory-friendly Santa Experiences for children throughout the regions where Cardinal Innovations members live. You can search for events in your area.

Some other resources for this holiday season are listed below:

Autism: The Autism Society says prepare, practice and teach coping skills before the holiday events begin. 

Sensory disorders: Creating a Family, a national nonprofit providing education and support to adoptive and foster parents (among others), has eight tips for managing sensory disorders during the holidays. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Sensory Issues: Health Central recommends preparing family or friends if a child doesn’t like hugs, kisses or touching and keeping shopping trips short among other suggestions. 

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Updated on November 22, 2019 to edit information and add upcoming events.
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