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Can Your Child, With Sensory Issues, Learn to Tolerate Holiday Gatherings and Parties?

Posted Dec 18 2009 2:26am 2 Comments
I love this article! I think it points out nicely that we, as parents, need to respect and sympathize with our sensory-sensitive children. The fact is, that regardless of how hard it is on us, it's a million times harder on them. It's our responsibility to protect them, respect them, and help them help themselves. It's our responsibility to teach the world about what they are going through, and to understand and honor them. They deserve that! And I think it's selfish to try to make them fit into our "box" of what constitutes "normal" behavior. I think it's selfish to not put their needs first.

Time after time, I watch my daughter escape into her own little world when we are around groups of people for too long. The mall, social groups, family gatherings, playgrounds, and so on-- turn my normally talkative, interactive, fun-loving daughter into a depressed, scared and lonely-looking shell of a little girl. It's as if she is screaming, "Help me! I have no where to run, so I am going inside myself." It's so sad, and I feel really bad for how hard it must be for her. I'm so glad I am a parent who is aware. I am so glad I am a parent that puts her first; she deserves that! Anything less would be selfish on my part.


Can Your Child, With Sensory Issues, Learn to Tolerate Holiday Gatherings and Parties?

By Nancy Peske

Although we all want children who have sensory issues to enjoy parties, family gatherings, and school social events along with everyone else, the stimulation that these situations provide can be much too unsettling for some kids. A child may actually go into what is called a panic response of "fight or flight," where his nervous system reacts as if he is in actual danger when what's really happening is that the noise, lights, and movement are so intense for him that it is triggering this primitive survival response. The sound of a group of several children singing in unison may make him feel to him as if someone is attacking his ear, while he may perceive all the visual stimulation of colored lights, party decorations, and people milling about as an all-out assault on his nervous system. So how can we help these kids to have fun without removing them from the situation completely?

The answer is that sometimes, we can't. Children with sensory processing disorder need a quiet, safe, low-stimulation environment to retreat to when they begin to feel their anxiety rising. If the child is becoming stressed out, accompany him to a quiet, dimly lit room nearby-a cloakroom, a bedroom, or even an unoccupied bathroom. Offer him opportunities for comforting and focusing stimulation. He might want to sit and rock, listen to calming music on a personal music player, lie on a couch or sit in a chair as you gently press pillows against him, or lie on the floor as you roll an exercise ball over him, pressing gently as you do so. Oral comforts such as a lollipop, chewing gum, or other chewable item may help the child regroup and, in time, return to the event. Earplugs can help reduce some of the noise, and activities that allow him to hyperfocus may make the "hoopla" less distressing to his nervous system. Calming activities can be done before, during, and afterward, as needed. The key is to ask the child to help you identify what would make him feel more comfortable.

You might give the sensory child a pile of Legos or blocks, or allow her to play with a toy on her own off to the side of the main activity area, if that is what she needs in order to be a part of the group. Don't assume she doesn't like the other guests just because doesn't want to participate in the activities the other kids are enjoying. She may be better off socializing in a more low-key atmosphere with a minimal number of children and a focused activity such as a craft project, a baking project, or a card game or board game. She may not be ready yet for a party with all the cousins, or the kids at the day care center. As she develops ways to accommodate her sensory issues and you and others work with her to develop her ability to tolerate stimulating environments, she will be better able to handle a variety of sensory situations.

It may be that the child can't handle the activity at all and, for safety reasons, needs to be escorted home. Be prepared to "rescue" your sensory child at preschool, late at night at a slumber party, or during a family gathering. You might want to ask a close friend or a relative to be available to take her in or watch your other children should you realize your sensory child cannot handle the situation. If you talk to your sensory child beforehand and let her know what her coping strategies and options are, however, you may be able to ease her anxiety enough that she will push herself to tolerate the unusually high amount of stressful stimulation. Encourage her to let you know her limits and be as flexible as you can, or let it go this time and simply plan an alternative celebration she can handle.

Nancy Peske is the coauthor of the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues and sends out a weekly newsletter of practical tips for parents and professionals who work with children who have sensory processing issues, available at http://www.sensorysmartnews.com.
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Thanks for posting this article.  I can relate to this myself.  Being aware and  tuning in to ourselves and our children can make a huge difference.
Thank you, Debbie. Happy holidays!
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