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Create a Sensory-Friendly Holiday Experience

By: Sneha Parikh, Occupational Therapist 

The holidays often feature excess: piles of glittering presents, a profusion of bright candles and lights, fireworks displays, tables laden with food and family gathered from near and far. For people with sensory processing sensitivities, these things can be particularly overwhelming.

But there are ways to avoid potential holiday pitfalls. Here are some tips to help you create a sensory-friendly holiday for your loved ones.

Family gatherings

Your family gathering this year will likely be much smaller, but your loved one might still struggle with sensory issues. To head off potential issues, explain to family members how sensory processing affects your family member and what reactions they might see. You can also bring sensory supports like a weighted blanket, noise-canceling headphones or a chewy. Find a quiet area in the home you’re visiting. This will provide a safe space to hit the reset button if things start to feel overwhelming for your loved one.

Different food and traditions

Of course, you want holiday mealtimes to remain positive and stress-free. If your loved one has a limited diet or food aversions, he or she could eat a meal before attending a holiday meal. That way, when you arrive at the host’s home, he or she can focus on engaging with family or friends without worrying about trying new foods. You could also bring your family members’ preferred foods to a family get-together.

New or unfamiliar clothing

Wearing dress clothes or traditional holiday attire can present challenges for someone with sensory needs. One way to head off potential problems is to let your loved one pick out their own outfit. You can also have them practice wearing the clothing ahead of time, even if just for a few minutes each day. This may help your loved one realize if any parts are itchy or irritating. Wearing fitted compression clothing underneath an outfit can also help reduce irritation. 

Holiday decorations

You might also plan to celebrate the holidays at home this year. If your family member is sensitive to lighting, try using one type of holiday lighting rather than mixing white lights, multicolored lights and blinking lights together. Many holidays incorporate candles, so make sure to talk to your loved one about candle safety. You’ll also want to be conscious of scented candles because smells can be either calming or alerting, based on your family member’s sensory system. Keep an area of your house free of decorations, so your loved one can retreat there for a break.

Virtual get-togethers

A virtual celebration may be easier for your family member because staying home is familiar and comfortable. However, connecting through a computer, phone or tablet feels different. Your loved one might find it harder to stay present and engaged. You might find it best to limit the amount of time spent engaging in those particular traditions, and that’s okay. Everything is different this year, and we’re all adapting. Be gentle with yourself.

Before connecting virtually, set up a comfortable space and remove clutter and distraction. Doing some calming movement or resistance activities beforehand might also increase your family member’s engagement in the virtual experience. Try a yoga routine, build an obstacle course or do animal walks, up and down the hallway. These activities give a body deep pressure input and can improve attention span.

Holiday celebrations have the potential to create an overwhelming amount of sensory stimuli. But with a little planning, you can help your loved one celebrate alongside everyone else.

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