The Senses and the Holidays — How to Prevent Overstimulation

The holiday season is such a special time of year.  For most of us, thinking about the holidays conjures up thoughts of brightly colored lights, carols and music, scrumptious desserts, the smell of home-cooked meals, and festive clothing.  Thanks to our senses, we can experience all the joy and magic that comes each year.

Now, take a second and imagine how difficult the holidays are for children with special needs.  There are multiple conditions that directly affect the five senses – ASD, ADD/ADHD, sensory disorders, social/behavioral issues, and many more.  For these children, the holidays can be nearly traumatizing due to the constant risk of overstimulation.

We have compiled a list of simple things that you can do this holiday season to help prevent your loved ones from becoming over-stimulated.  Let’s start with the five senses.


SIGHT – Decorative holiday lights are bright and colorful, but could cause harm to some children with sensory issues.  Limit the holiday lighting around your house.  Instead of lining your windows with lights, try just a single candle.  Pass on the 500-light strands and go for a smaller amount.  Also, avoid twinkling lights that blink.  Let your child get accustomed to the new decorations by encouraging him or her to help you set them up.  Watch as your child helps you and if he or she begins to show signs of sensory overload, you have probably put up too many lights.


SOUND – There are so many sounds that are familiar during the holiday season.  Many homes play background music during parties or sing carols, not to mention all the visitors who will have plenty of things to talk about.  All of those noises combined could be harmful to your child.  Purchase some flexible ear plugs for your child and bring them with you to gatherings.  You may also consider calling the host ahead of time to explain your child’s condition and ask if a “quiet room” could be made available, if necessary.


TASTE – From pumpkin pie to turkey with all the trimmings, there are bound to be some new foods around the house during the holidays.  If you are visiting friends or family, you may be aware that they will serve food your child will not eat.  Pack a bag and bring some of your child’s favorite foods – including some snacks and a dessert!  When you arrive, take the host aside and explain why you brought different food.  Kindly remind the host that it is not an insult to the cooking, but rather an easy way to make your child feel comfortable and welcome.


SMELL – The smells of the holidays can be intoxicating – cookies in the oven, candles by the stove, and especially perfumes from your visitors.  If you know that your child is affected by strong smells, consider calling your guests in advance and asking them to avoid wearing perfumes and cologne. even suggests incorporating cinnamon into your child’s Playdough before the holidays to introduce them to the smells of the season.1


FEEL – In some families, it is still traditional to wear fancy clothes on a special occasion.  Children who are not familiar wearing suits, dress pants, or dresses with itchy petticoats may not be welcome to the idea.  Sit down with your child and explain that sometimes people get dressed up on the holidays.  Let your child help you pick out something nice to wear.  Encourage a game of dress up to try on the fancy clothes, but do not force your child to leave them on if he or she is uncomfortable.  By introducing the clothes ahead of time, you are giving your child the chance to warm up to them.  On the day of the event, bring a spare change of comfortable clothing – such as pajamas or a favorite sweater.


In addition to the five senses, here are some other simple tips to help make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone:


  • Explain everything in advance.  Take your child aside and talk about everything that is going to happen – decorating, wrapping, visitors, parties, cooking, etc.  If possible, include pictures.
  • Plan things out. suggests creating a calendar with descriptions or pictures of upcoming plans, especially on busy days.  Take the time before the events to explain the activities and be sure to include if the event is indoors or outdoors, or if it will be crowded.2
  • Involve your child as much as possible.  Let your child help bake the cookies and set the table.  Not only will your child feel a sense of ownership, this will also help accommodate him or her to the new surroundings.  Establish at least 15 minutes a day dedicated to your child.  Let him or her be the center of attention and decide on a family game or activity.
  • Create a code word.  Here is another great recommendation from

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 over-stimulating for them will reduce anxiety, and help them stay calm and organized.2


  • Bring extra activities.  Pack up some of your child’s favorite toys and books in a separate bag.  If he or she uses the code word or appears to be overwhelmed, bring the bag and find a quiet space to play.  You may also consider bringing a favorite movie on a portable DVD player.


But the best tip of all is for YOU to relax and enjoy yourself.  The holidays are a special time of the year and everyone deserves to be happy…including you!


     1 Sterland, Emma. “13 Holiday Survival Tips For Your Child With Special Needs.” Friendship Circle Special Needs Resource Blog. Friendship Circle of Michigan, 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>.

      2Melillo, Dr. Robert. “Helping Children with Sensory Challenges Enjoy the Holiday Season.” Sheknows. N.p., 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>. 

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Dave Hoffman