A Sensory Friendly Holiday Reminder: A Letter to My Guests

Dear beloved family and friends who are coming to my house this November,

While I’m overjoyed you’ll be here to celebrate a day of thanks, there are a few key ideas I need you to understand how this event might affect my child with sensory processing disorder.

A Sensory Friendly Holiday Reminder: A Letter to My Guests

Last year, as you may recall, my child was “unruly,” “disruptive,” and, as Uncle Ben put it, “unfriendly.” It was a challenging day for all, even though my husband and I had tried to address our child’s needs. I’ve now done my best to capture the essence of that day from our perspective for you. In light of these events, I’ve also prepared a list of three things I’d be very thankful for if you tried with us this year.

Thanksgiving Is A Dizzying Roller-Coaster of Sensations for My Child

It all starts with the smells. The kitchen has been put on lockdown. There is an invisible scent-barrier of salty gravy, sweet cinnamon-apples, and grandma’s sourdough. My son loves to eat them but cannot approach the kitchen while they’re cooking.

The house has been transformed into a museum. Don’t touch.

Furniture has been moved; toys are put away. Don’t touch.

The table is layered with linens, glass dishes, and candles. Don’t touch! 

Mom is occupied in the kitchen. Dad is running last-minute errands. Then, the football game begins, and Mom is still busy. There is no one to play with! My son can’t play inside and make a mess. He can’t play outside either and risk getting his clothes dirty. And even though there is food everywhere, he can’t have any.

“What time do people get here?” He asks me. I respond with the most confusing answer.

“Oh, I don’t know. Dinner is at 4 p.m. …so, I suppose they can come anytime they want?” It’s currently 12:30 p.m.

My Son’s Sense of Security Goes Out the Window.

The aromas have gone to his head, the timeline for the day is uncertain, and he can’t do “anything.” He’s wearing new clothes that still smell like the department store; he’s been told to sit up, sit still, and stay at a table filled with adults talking about…well, adult things, of course.

From a sensory processing perspective, my son is being asked to endure crowded rooms, loud voices, strong smells, and clothes he doesn’t like for a “never-ending” period. To compare, think back to Aunt Edna’s funeral reception at the Elks Lodge, but no one there is your age. On second thought, that part’s the same. At the physiological level, he is itchy, his ears hurt, his stomach growls, and his nose and eyes are being assaulted by odors. So much is already being asked of my son today.

Then, you arrive and ask him to report to you what he’s learned at school this year. In his mind, that means “everything.”

The Pressure Is Building…

My nine-year-old son has more than one type of sensory integration and processing disorder. This means his sensory-input and output systems do not discriminate and regulate like yours. This can cause him to feel certain sensations more strongly, or even to struggle to feel them at all. This can make life a bit frustrating sometimes.

As a result, his reactions may appear extreme to you. They don’t match his age. They don’t fit the situation. And his defense mechanisms usually make people confused or upset. Because this disorder is equally as confusing to my child himself, it’s hard for him to communicate what, specifically, is harming him.

“What’s wrong?” we ask my son.

“Nothing…” he says with a frown.

Soon, Uncle Ben arrives. He’s a smoker and has beer breath. My child gives him the awkward extra, extra-large space bubble treatment. So now, he’s the “unsocial” kid who won’t hug his uncle.

We are fully primed for an explosion during the meal. Tears of frustration line my son’s eyes like red warning signs. He’s tired already. Loss of focus and motor control is causing him to bump into and drop things. People have already commented on his “bad manners.”

He reaches for his drink, and somehow, his fingers don’t quite close around it. It spills. And now he is wailing.

“It’s okay. Just clean it up. You don’t have to cry about it,” someone says.

“Waaaaa!!!” He’s inconsolable and limp. And what you don’t realize is that he can’t stop crying. He’s met his max, and then some.

He tries to get up and leave, but people are telling him to stay. He’s completely stressed out and embarrassed but isn’t allowed to take a private Moment to calm down.

And when the socially acceptable time for a tantrum has passed, eyes around the table start turning towards us, Mom and Dad.

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“What’s going on? Why is he acting like this? Make him stop.”

But I can’t. Until the offending sensations are reduced or removed, or he can use a replacement behavior to release and lessen the discomfort of the sensations, he will continue to be completely overwhelmed while people judge.

This Year Will Be Different.

Looking back, I realize that we had not prepared enough. This year, though, we will do things differently. I’m asking you to please heed these three suggestions to help us all have a more successful day.

1. Accept that my child sees, feels, or hears things you may not

What’s “too loud” or uncomfortable for him might not be the same for you. Please give him the benefit of your doubt. If you are confused about his response to something, ask me (or my child, if he is older) to explain what would be more comfortable for them.

2. Resist labeling my child when he is in distress

My child is not necessarily “fidgety,” “whiny,” or “fussy.” Instead, the words you are looking for include, “careful,” “honest,” and “aware.” My child is not trying to annoy anyone. He is just putting up with a lot of added stressors needs us to acknowledge that. Embarrassment is far less useful than compassion.

3. Support our methods for teaching our child to express how he is feeling and addressing it appropriately

Please don’t advise. We have a therapist giving us professional advice already. Several, actually. What you can do to support us is by allowing my child to use his tools (fidgets, sunglasses, earplugs) as much as he needs. If I allow my child to leave the dinner table to play for a while and regulate himself, please don’t interfere, and don’t take it personally—he’s not ignoring company or being “weird.” These tools and strategies are necessary and effective ways to help my child feel safe so that he can come back and re-join the group.

We hope that these simple adjustments will allow our child to feel more comfortable during the celebration. Your patience and participation in the plan will make all the difference to our family. Thank you!

See you Thursday.

This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need

Janelle Molony

Janelle Molony, MSL, is an adoptive Mom, homeschool Mom, dance Mom, special needs advocate, and author/blogger at AdoptionToLife.com. She has written a memoir of her experiences fostering and adopting her son and overcoming life’s challenges. For more information, visit her blog page at AdoptionToLife.com and Pinterest.