Our winter holiday season has passed. Hopefully your family enjoyed festive traditions and created treasured memories. If your family includes a child with special needs, you are already aware of the stressors that social gatherings and non-routine events can cause. Even for a child who has no specific diagnosis but is generally anxious or nervous, such events can lead to a state of sensory overload. If a child is overly sensitive to noise, crowds, lights and smells, the gathering that others are enjoying can quickly become unbearable for him. This can lead to behaviors such as crying, tantrums, complaining and angry outbursts. Sadly, strangers and even friends or family members may view these simply as unruly behaviors.

As you look ahead to a year that will be filled with events and celebrations, both big and small, you can start planning strategies to help your child relish and enjoy them.

  • Identify triggers and signs of stress. that cause discomfort for your child and the outward signs that show he is becoming distressed. These signs can include facial expressions, fidgeting with clothing, general restlessness or impatience, clenched fists and angry words.
  • Make a plan of action for upcoming events. Do you have gatherings planned with friends or family? It is helpful to have honest discussions about your child with those who are close to you. In this way they too can be on the lookout for the triggers that you have identified that may cause your child discomfort. If your child is old enough to be unattended, find a room away from the rest of the crowd where your child can retreat if his senses start to become overloaded. If your child is too young to be left alone, take turns with another to remove him from the crowd and engage him in a more quiet activity. Commit to leaving when you sense that your child is reaching his limit. If your child is old enough to tell time, establish a time when he knows you will leave. This can help him feel secure.
  • Talk with your child’s teacher. What is coming up at school? Do classmates have noisy birthday celebrations in the classroom where they sing and pass out treats? What will take place in the classroom for Valentine’s Day? Will your child be expected to take part in gatherings in the school gym? Big open spaces in school buildings can cause sensory overload for children who are sensitive to the loud, echo-like sounds they create. How does your child react to the sounds of the fire, tornado and lock-down drills? Help your child by making proactive plans with his teacher for all of these situations.
  • Expect the unexpected. If you know your child’s capacity for sensory stimulation, plan ahead for how long you will be in the grocery store or the mall with him. Always be alert to the spontaneous events you may encounter in public places. For example, perhaps a small band is performing in honor of a store’s 25th anniversary. No matter where you go, remain alert to assess situations related to what you know about your child’s level of tolerance. 

In all of these situations, it’s important to be as proactive as possible on behalf of your child. If your child is old enough, talk with him about it. He will feel acknowledged, safe and supported knowing that you are aware of the discomfort sensory stimulation can cause him. Share with him the strategies that you implement so that he can learn to use them in advocating for himself.

Dori Buschke is the program director and principal at St. Francis Children’s Center.


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