November 1, 2021

With the holiday season around the corner, many of us are excited to gather around groups of friends and family to celebrate. While we are overjoyed for a semi-normal holiday season, these gatherings will be extremely difficult for many kids, especially those with sensory difficulties. 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder when an individual processes and perceives sensory input much differently than others, and produces abnormal responses. When an individual has SPD, their sensory systems may be over or under sensitive to certain types of sensory input related to touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing, movement, and body awareness.

A child with sensory processing disorder may exhibit (but not limited to) these types of behaviors at a large family gathering:

  • Holding ears with loud noises
  • Poor tolerance of smells of food
  • Overstimulation from busy environments
  • Difficulty staying seated at dinner and attempting to escape situation, such as hiding under table, staying in bathroom
  • Difficulty eating different textures of foods and refusal to touch or eat new foods
  • Constantly wiping hands when dirty
  • Seeking out movement, such as spinning, jumping, crashing
  • Shy and trouble interacting with new people 
  • Difficulty getting child to wear holiday attire; particular about wearing certain clothing, socks, shoes

If you observe your child having these difficulties, it can be beneficial to consult with a pediatric occupational therapist for an evaluation. Occupational therapy can provide strategies and intervention to manage these sensory processing difficulties. 

Some strategies that an Occupational Therapist would recommend for these particular events include:

  • Participate in cooking, by making grocery list, shopping for ingredients, reading recipes, and measuring and stirring ingredients.
  • Allow child to help with seating placement for meals, so that they can provide input on where they would be most comfortable.
  • Prepare your child as much as possible before the event. Provide pictures of the home and what people will be there.
  • Be mindful of environment (sights, sounds, smells).
  • Have the child assist in setting table, serving others, cleaning up, etc.
  • Have a practice run before big event.
  • Find a holiday attire outfit that meets the needs of their body (textures, seams, tags).
  • Reinforce taking breaks such as taking a walk outside, reading a book, bathroom break, walking away from table for a few minutes and returning, provide a safe quiet take a break place in the home to use.
  • Use transitional items, such as an item from home that can assist them feeling more comfortable in unfamiliar places.
  • Allow noise canceling headphones or ear plugs.
  • Don’t force new foods with picky eaters. Being tolerant of new foods first begins with being able to handle the sight and smell of them.
  • If they can handle the sight and smell of a new food, allow a “no, thank you” plate, and have them use their hand or utensil to place food on the plate. 
  • Engage in movement activities before seated gatherings, such as riding bikes and running and playing on playground equipment. This can improve the ability to stay seated for a longer period of time at the table. 

It can be also helpful to educate other family members about your child’s difficulties prior to gatherings. Know your child’s needs and be mindful of their difficulties with sensory processing during this holiday season. Keep in mind, none of us have had any of these kinds of events in over 18 months. 


Kimberly Bradley, MS, LOTR, pediatric occupational therapist, owner Kim4Kids.

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