Child looks at camera from behind a Christmas tree.

Family Health

5 Tips for Managing Sensory Sensitivities During the Holidays

Nov 30, 2018

The holiday season can be overwhelming. The lights, the music, the traveling, the crowded shopping malls, the change in routines, the smells... it all can be too much, especially to someone who is autistic and/or has sensory issues.

There are things you can do to help though.

These five tips will help you manage your child's (or maybe even your own) sensory sensitivities during the holidays.

1. Plan ahead and involve your child in the planning process

There are many things you can do to plan ahead to accommodate your child's sensory sensitivities during the holidays. For instance, you can avoid the busy and crowded shopping malls by buying gifts early or online.

You can also tackle food sensitivities and picky eating issues by trying holiday foods in advance. Or if you know you'll be having turkey dinner at grandma's house this Christmas and your child will not eat turkey, then discuss with grandma about offering an alternative as well. You can also plan to bring up a backup meal, if needed.

You'll also want to have your child involved in the holiday planning.

Is there something in particular that they would like to do over the holidays? Is there something that is just too much for them that you can avoid or help prepare them for? If there something your child can bring with them to help them through an experience that might be stressful or overwhelming?

Include them in these discussions so you can find out what may or may not be a problem during the holidays. This simple tip makes a huge difference, trust me!

You'll Also Love: Why I Ask My 5-Year-Old Son For Permission Before Hugging Him — And Other Ways We Discuss Consent

2. Involve your child in the decorating

Consider decorating early and gradually as a way to reduce the visual overwhelm that comes along with decorating for the holidays. Have your child help pick out the decorations and hang them. Doing so will give them more control and help them decorate in a way that won't be overwhelming to them.

You might also want to consider switching to a fake Christmas tree instead of using a real Christmas tree if the smell of a real tree is too much for your child.

3. Look for sensory-friendly holiday events and options

There are so many sensory-friendly options these days, including sensory Santa hours, sensory holiday movie screenings and sensory shopping hours. 

Many of these events are designed specifically with autistic and sensory families in mind. They offer reduced sound, dimmed lights and more to help you and your family enjoy some holiday fun.

Ask around and watch for store flyers that announce these special sensory-friendly events.

4. Try to maintain and follow your regular routines as best as you can

Most (if not all) kids thrive when they have a predictable routine and consistency. I know the holidays are busy and routines change, but try to provide regular routines as best as you can during this time.

Be sure to also limit surprises and new experiences. I'm personally a big fan of keeping things low-key during the holidays as a way to reduce overwhelm and meltdowns. Here's what I keep in mind:

  • You don't need to go to every holiday party you are invited to.
  • You don't need to check out every holiday event in town that appeals to you.
  • You don't have to get that photo taken with Santa.
  • Just keep things simple.

5. Create a holiday survival tool kit

Social stories are such a helpful tool for autistic kids, as they explain events and experiences by breaking them down step-by-step and describing the expectations of such events. I strongly suggest finding or writing your own social stories and reading them ahead of the holidays so that your child knows what to expect.

Another useful tool is to make a holiday calm-down kit. Be sure to make it travel-friendly if you are planning on doing lots of traveling during the holidays. Here are some things you might want to include in a holiday calm-down kit:

  • activity books
  • chewing gum
  • weighted lap cushion
  • chew necklace
  • fidgets
  • calm down bottle
  • noise-reducing headphones

And be sure to come up with an exit plan that you can implement for when something goes wrong at a holiday event. Because I can almost guarantee that something will go wrong, and you'll be thankful you had an exit plan already lined up.

Article Author Dyan Robson
Dyan Robson

Read more from Dyan here.

Married to her high school sweetheart, Dyan is mom to two boys, J and K, who also teaches piano out of her home. On her blog And Next Comes L, Dyan shares her story of raising a child with hyperlexia, hypernumeracy and autism, amongst a variety of sensory activities for kids. You can find out more about their story on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.


Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.