The holiday season is—for many of us—the most wonderful time of the year. However, for children with sensory processing issues, it may be a very stressful time of year. Thanksgiving, in particular, is sometimes difficult for children with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, autism and other special needs. I have a four-year-old son with profound nonverbal autism and a two-year-old son with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder. If you are the parent of a child with sensory processing issues, or know a child with sensory processing issues, your prep work could be key for happy holiday memories. Here are some tips and ideas for a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving.
Anticipate Sensory Needs
We had Thanksgiving with my dad’s family last weekend. My aunt rented a bounce house for the kids, which turned out to be invaluable for my oldest son, who is a sensory seeker (i.e., he craves sensory input, heavy work, gross motor play, etc.). He stayed in the bounce house for nearly the entire length of our visit; I allowed him to do so because it was where he was most comfortable. Milo has an extremely limited attention span, so—for him—socializing wasn’t really an option. My younger brother was kind enough to take several shifts in the bounce house so I had the opportunity to say hi to a few family members. The bounce house was a special treat for us; we typically don’t have an outlet for Milo’s endless energy at family gatherings, so I sometimes bring a small trampoline or other gross motor toy. I know vestibular input is key to my son’s wellbeing (read more about vestibular input here), so I’m hyperaware of potential vestibular input opportunities around us (e.g., fenced backyards, swings, trampolines, etc.). Determine what your child’s sensory needs are, then plan for those—whatever those may be.
Recruit Family Members as Aides
My mom, dad, and brother know more about Milo’s needs than anyone outside of my husband and myself. Typically, before events, we “assign” the boys specific family members. As Milo requires a lot of assistance, he gets two aides if possible. If family isn’t available, try recruiting an understanding friend. Last summer, I co-led a playgroup with my friend Kelli, a fellow autism mom. Kelli’s husband cared for their two children the first couple of meetings; rather than enjoy the opportunity to teach distraction-free, she graciously helped with my boys. I never even had to ask. If you are the family member of a child that struggles with a sensory processing issue, consider contacting the parent of that child in advance to ask how you can help. My aunt messaged me a few days before her event to ask what she could do; such a practical gesture was deeply appreciated.
Ask for a Quiet Space
While my son is, by and large, a sensory seeker, he also feels overstimulated at times. I asked my aunt if she could direct us to a quiet bedroom or other corner of the house in the event of a meltdown or some other form of visible sensory overload. Milo ultimately didn’t need a break, but it put my mind at ease to know we had somewhere to go, other than the car, if necessary.
Know your child’s limits; Thanksgiving is not the day to enforce habits your child has yet to master. If your child won’t sit nicely at the table for Thanksgiving dinner, bring a booster seat or ask the host if there is an outdoor area that he or she doesn’t mind getting a little messy. If needed, bring a sack lunch. Many children with sensory processing issues are averse to food textures, tastes, and smells—don’t expect your child to suddenly eat turkey and green beans because it’s Thanksgiving. Bring a PB&J or chicken nuggets if needed. It’s easy, as a special needs parent, to feel inadequate during the holidays—other kids are sitting nicely for pictures with Santa, other kids are using eating utensils appropriately, other kids are trying new foods. You worry if parents of typically-developing children will think that you’re indulgent as a parent or that you spoil your kids. It’s easier said than done, but try not to worry what other people think. Be calm, be kind, and be difficult to offend. Try to see the intent behind insensitive remarks (“He doesn’t look autistic!” is, for example, typically meant as a compliment by the offender) and be patient with uninformed advice (“Have you thought about trying [insert: ABA therapy, gluten-free diet, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, et al.]?” is, for example, typically meant to be helpful. It’s difficult, but I do vehemently fight the urge to respond with a comment like, “Why no—in years of desperation and research, I’ve yet to come up with the solution you found to all my problems in under thirty seconds.”). I also make a point of sharing with our host, whomever it may be, that we likely won’t be able to stay long. That way, if we stay longer than expected, our host is pleasantly surprised (or not—haha), but if we need to leave because of a meltdown or some other reason, our host knows why.
Never Be Without a Busy Bag
Stuff an oversized tote bag with therapeutic items and toys to distract your child in the event that there is little available in the way of sensory relief at your destination. If your child is high-functioning, you might be able to get your child to sit for a meal if he or she has access to a highly motivating item such as Lego bricks, a fidget toy, or a tablet. My four-year-old with profound nonverbal autism enjoys a simple bubble-popping app I found for free in the iTunes Store; my two-year-old with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder enjoys Endless ABC. Both my boys like trains, so Thomas Minis and other toy trains are musts for my boys’ busy bags.
For children with sensory processing issues, it may take a little extra planning to ensure a happy holiday season—but I believe all children, regardless of developmental ability, should be afforded the opportunity to enjoy Thanksgiving traditions and family visits if possible.