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Helping children with sensory challenges enjoy the holiday season

While the holiday season is supposed to be joyous, family gatherings and holiday decorations can actually be quite stressful for children with sensory issues, ADHD, Asperger’s, or just general social and behavioral issues.

Contributed by Dr. Robert Melillo

The following tips and strategies can help children with sensory challenges enjoy the next few weeks.

Provide a schedule

Give your child a schedule of events for special activities, particularly on days with lots of transitions. Whether it’s a written schedule or one with pictures for younger kids, your child will feel calmer and safer knowing what is coming up. Discuss the schedule regularly and provide information for each event. For example, let your child know which events will take place outside and which will be loud or crowded. Sometimes just knowing what’s next can help children with behavioral and sensory issues feel less anxious.

Create a code word

Have a code word your child can use if he or she feels overwhelmed and needs a break. Assure your child if he or she uses the code word, you will respond right away. Again, giving children some control during activities that may be overstimulating for them will reduce anxiety, and help them stay calm and organized.

Have a family meeting

Before you leave for holiday parties, parades, or other fun events, have a quick family meeting so your whole family knows how long you plan to stay and how you expect them to behave. This will benefit neuro-typical children as well, since any child can get overwhelmed with the excitement of the holidays. Continue to make your child’s sleep schedule a priority, even in the midst of so many special events.

Know your child’s limits

Children with significant sensory sensitivities may require a little extra planning to enjoy holiday festivities. For example, you may need to bring along ear plugs if you will be in a noisy environment or sensory fidgets if the child is expected to sit still. For sensitive kids who need to wear dress clothes for events, bring along some soft clothes (like sweats, soft cozy knits, etc.) for them to change into as soon as possible. Be prepared by knowing your child’s specific limitations and how you will handle them if the need arises. Don’t wait for the meltdown to begin.

Prepare food alternatives

If your children have food sensitivities or allergies that prevent them from eating holiday treats, plan ahead to offer alternatives like all-natural candy or a gluten-free treat from home. Children with neuro-behavioral disorders often already feel different, so be sure to include them in as many holiday festivities as possible.

Tone down the decorations

If your child is easily over-stimulated, limit holiday decorations in your home. Too many twinkling lights combined with smells from the kitchen and other holiday distractions, while enjoyable to most, can be too much for children with Asperger’s, ADHD or sensory disorders. Allow children to help you decorate for the holidays so they are involved in the changes that take place in their comforting environment.

The holiday season doesn’t have to be a stressful time of year for your child with a learning or behavioral disorder. We hope these tips help your whole family enjoy this fun time of year.

About the author

As a researcher, professor, lecturer and bestselling author, Dr. Robert Melillo is the creator of the Brain Balance Program and co-founder of Brain Balance Achievement Centers, a national learning center dedicated to helping children between the ages of 4 and seventeen reach their physical, social/behavioral health and academic potential by implementing a brain-based, not drug based program that addresses the root cause of many childhood neuro-behavioral issues. The individualized and customized program utilizes sensory motor, cognitive exercises and nutritional guidance. For more information, visit

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