How to manage sensory overload during the holidays

Stefanie Sacks "Sensory Hell"
Stefanie Sacks "Sensory Hell"

By Tina Fletcher

The hallmarks of the holiday season — holiday twinkle lights, carolers, the aroma of a large home-cooked meal — can be an overwhelming experience for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

As families with children on the autism spectrum plan their holidays, here are some insights on how to create an enjoyable experience for all.

Prepare with a story

By providing children with a sense of what they can expect, the stage is set for success. There are many internet resources for developing customized social stories to your specific event. Ask the host for an agenda of events so you can best prepare your child for what is to come. Here is a link to social stories for Christmas that can be customized for other holidays.

Harness your inner negotiator

Many times, parents can negotiate expressions with their children. For example, allow a toy at the dinner table and explain that it will need to be put away during a family event later. Also, make sure you outfit your child in comfortable clothing (for sensory-sensitive children) when in an uncomfortable situation, such as a long car ride.

Plan as much as possible

Always be upfront with your child about what to expect in any given situation. When possible, do a trial run to practice group situations and settings and introduce the smells of new foods in your home.

Designate a quiet space

Ask the host of the holiday festivities for a quiet, uncrowded space in their home. Forced stillness is a nightmare for many children who like to explore environments with their voice and by moving their bodies.

Use structure to your benefit

Family interaction during the holidays centers on traditions and family participation. In order to engage with children on the autism spectrum, a clear outline of rules (order of play, turn-taking, ability to anticipate the outcome and a clear beginning and end) is highly recommended. These sorts of games encourage social interactions and connections without repercussions. Letting a child know ahead of time that someone else may win before the game starts helps to set the interaction up for success.

As we are swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we frequently take for granted things that those with sensory processing needs find challenging. Incorporating these tips and sharing them with friends and family will help to ensure an enjoyable holiday for everyone.


Tina Fletcher

Tina Fletcher is a professor of occupational therapy and advocate for cultural arts access at Texas Woman’s University. Her passions focus on the use of creativity and art and how participation in the experience of art positively impacts a person’s quality of life.

This article was originally posted in the Dallas News.

Cover Image: Stefanie Sacks “Sensory Hell”

Readers may also like:

These Five Videos are What its Like to Experience Sensory Overload
An Autistic Perspective: Deep Pressure and Primal Memory
The Gift of Music: A Holiday Story

0 replies on “How to manage sensory overload during the holidays”