The Second Key to a Calm Christmas: Help for Our Sensory Seekers and Avoiders

One of my favorite Christmas books when I was growing up was The Sweet Smell of Christmas, a scented story book. You could scratch and sniff a pine tree, an orange, hot chocolate, and a candy cane.

But when I bought it for my own boys, they reacted to it differently than I did over thirty years ago. David wrinkled his nose, “Too smelly!” he said and didn’t want to open it again. James loved the smells, and carried it around, scratching the smelly spots in the book until there wasn’t anything left to smell.

When I observed my sensory avoider and my sensory seeker reading that book, it helped me realize all the sensory experiences Christmas brings. Think of the changes in temperature (especially if you live in a cold climate like we did when we lived in Pennsylvania), which also bring changes to the clothes your kids have to wear—shoes and sock or maybe itchy hats or scarves. And the lights you put on the tree and around the outside of the house that twinkle. And the extra noise of Christmas songs we love to play this time of year even if your home is normally quieter. And the smells of cookies baking or apple cider simmering. All these details are what makes Christmas feel like Christmas to most of us, but our kids can be overwhelmed by the changes.

In the picture above, James was three years old and had been diagnosed with autism just a couple months before. We had no idea what adjustments we’d need to make to help calm down his sensory-seeking tendencies. But with help from his occupational therapist and lots of observation over the years, we’ve come up with ways to help!

When we’re out of school for breaks, we plan a “sensory diet” to make sure James is getting his sensory needs met. He’s mostly a sensory seeker, but he has some big avoidances as well. I hope these ideas help your family:

For sensory seekers:

  • We get outside. Even if you live in a cooler climate, it’s still good for our kids to spend time outside. We go for a family hike through a state park in Houston. If it’s especially warm like it was last Christmas, we may go to the beach. We especially love when we can find swings to help his vestibular regulation.
  • We meet the needs before they become an issue. James puts non-food items in his mouth, and it’s worse this time of year with Christmas ornaments that look like food and different textures, like tinsel. We offer him lots of crunchy foods like apples and carrots so he works those mouth muscles and gets sensory input. We also have chew tubes for times he needs them.
  • We work out those big and little muscle groups. We have a little trampoline in the house for jumping. We wrap James up tight like a burrito in his blanket (head out of course). He gets lots and lots of tickles. We also play with Play-Doh and zoom cars around the floor so he works out all his muscles.

For sensory avoiders:

  • We calm down our home environment so even if we spend time at a relative’s house or at church where it looks very different than usual, he can come home and feel comfortable. We still have a tree, but the lights are soft white and they don’t twinkle.
  • We use noise reducing headphones for places we know will be loud, like restaurants or stores.
  • We created a quiet area. Well, honestly, James created it for himself. At school they converted a closet (that doesn’t lock) into a safe and soft place for the kids to go when they feel overwhelmed. We noticed James kept dragging blankets and stuffed animals into our closet when he wanted some quiet time. We have made it comfortable for him and we let him hang out in there when he needs to.

There are additional sensory issues that can cause problems over Christmas break. One is sleep (especially a lack of sleep) and the other is traveling. And when you combine the two, it’s incredibly hard! Last year we spent two nights in hotels and a few nights at my in-laws’ house. James doesn’t sleep well away from home, so we prepared ahead of time.

We brought his favorite stuffed animal with us of course, so he felt more secure. He also likes the feel of heavy blankets when he sleeps, so we packed his quilt. We kept as close to our regular night time routine as we could, giving him a bath before bed time. Since we can’t leave him in an unfamiliar room alone, I went to bed with him each night until he fell asleep. We tried to keep the room dark and quiet. And when it still took hours for him to fall asleep, we let him take melatonin.

James often wakes up between 2-3 am and doesn’t go back to sleep. It’s hard to deal with at home, but it’s extra hard at someone else’s house. Here’s our plan for when that happens when we’re traveling. First, good communication. Talking about what the plan is before we need it helps. I may do the 2-5 am shift and then Lee gets up and lets me sleep from 5-8. Lee may take a nap in the afternoon so he can stay up late and I can fall asleep earlier. We won’t let the pressure and expectations of being at someone else’s house make us push James (or David) past what we know they can handle. (We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.)

Sensory challenges can be tough! But I hope these tips help you think of solutions for your family, especially if you’re traveling or not sleeping well!

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