11/26/2015 05:38 EST | Updated 11/26/2016 05:12 EST

Holiday Survival Tips For Sensory Sensitive Children

Caiaimage/Monashee Alonso via Getty Images
Girl decorating Christmas tree

We parents are a weird lot when it comes to traditions, aren't we? Think about it. We not only urge our kids to approach a total stranger in a sketchy-looking red velour suit (an otherwise frowned upon activity 364 days a year), we tell her to climb onto the bearded man's lap. No wonder even the most easygoing kid isn't necessarily down with the arrangement.

When you factor in itchy formal attire, the cloying of carols, the brusque bustle of shoppers -- not to mention blazing lights and lineups galore -- the season can feel doubly hellish for sensitive kids. Take my little man, for instance. If the mere sound of nail clippers is 'painful' to him, you can imagine how torturous Christmas is. Before he was diagnosed with autism, we spent the better part of a gathering holed up in a bedroom away from the very family we were there to visit.

Suffice to say, it was not merry or bright.

I'm happy to report that we are far sager now. Preparation is key. Here are some tips on how to help a sensitive child (and parent!) survive the festive crazies:

  • Count down the days with an advent or print calendar, taking care not to overschedule. Trade off with family members so your child isn't on the go too much.
  • Create a social story describing what will happen at each visit and tradition. Keep it simple and positive, from your child's point of view, e.g. "I will eat some turkey, then we will open presents." Don't assume your child knows how to act and react; set her up for success by outlining expected behaviour, such as, "I can look at decorations but should not touch them because they might break." Or better still, put breakables out of reach. Or, in my son's case, instead of announcing that this present is "not very interesting," I will thank the person who got it for me.
  • If necessary, have your child eat at a smaller table or before the entire group gets together. If your child is a fussy eater, have alternatives in place. The world won't come to an end if your child doesn't eat turkey and sprouts, though the atmosphere will be far less convivial if he descends into an epic meltdown. Trust me on this. Ditto for aforementioned itchy formal attire.
  • Decide on a dim, quiet space, far from the hubub, in which your child can regroup. Don't wait for the overload. A favourite book or relaxing music on headphones are good bets, or join your child for a quick cuddle. A swift walk around the block might help those needing a body break. You'll both feel recharged afterwards, and who knows, spontaneous carol singing may happen.

Lastly, there is no need to fear the red-suited guy. Lots of places are becoming more attuned to sensory needs, granting kids a special audience with Saint Nick. If the local mall is not your bag, you can also seek out 'sensitive' Santas through various autism-friendly agencies. My son had a blast meeting Santa at last year, and if we plan ahead, I have no doubt he'll enjoy decking the halls again this year.

A version of this article originally appeared at


Christmas Pajamas Your Kids Will Love