The Holidays are all about family and food. While this is a wonderful time for many, children with sensory processing disorder or Autism find the combination to be challenging. The loud noises, unfamiliar people, different schedules, new smells, and strange foods can upset children with SPD or Autism. I want to help make things a bit easier by sharing some tips that will help you create a sensory-friendly environment for children which will then make festive meals and other mealtimes a more enjoyable activity of daily living for all involved.
The Holidays are all about family and food. While this is a wonderful time, it is important for parents and therapists to realize that many children with sensory processing disorder or Autism find the combination to be challenging. Children with SPD or Autism can often be picky eaters. And while this is frequently difficult, it is especially so when there are new people around who may not understand the behavior. Full of good intentions, family members can pressure children with SPD to eat food. This increases the anxiety felt by children and makes their lives even more challenging. All too often, “family and food” cause stress for children whose response can be overwhelming – and put a damper on a time of thankful celebration.
I want to help make things a bit easier by sharing some tips that will help parents create a sensory-friendly environment for children which will then make Holiday meals and other mealtimes a more enjoyable activity of daily living for all involved.
- First, it is important to educate family members and friends who may be joining you, ahead of time about your child’s sensory difficulties. Teach them the sensory strategies that help your child. This will help them to be aware of how they interact toward your child, and can make a huge difference in everyone’s enjoyment of the day.
- Secondly, make sure that both you and your guests realize that it is never productive to force a child with SPD or Autism to touch, taste or eat a food they dislike. Encourage them to taste it, but allow them to say “No thank you”.
- Next, understanding the reasons for children’s negative responses can be helpful to both alleviate stress and create a better sensory environment.
- Texture of food is one of the most difficult challenges to address for children who are picky eaters. Their tactile system can go on high alert, causing them to gag on the food and may result in explosive behaviors. Honor a child’s food sensitivity. Consider making pureed food options or purchase and have ready freeze-dried vegetables, depending on the child’s preference for texture; smooth or crunchy.
- Some smells can set off a child’s nervous system into sensory overload. Have neutral scents ready for the child to smell. These include coffee, cinnamon, and cloves. Put a small amount of the scent into a miniature container with a lid and set it by the child’s plate so they can sniff it as needed.
- Many children do not like having their food touch on their plate. Avoid food touching by using separate dishes for each food item or a plate that has dividers.
- Holiday mealtimes are typically at a different time of the day than normal mealtimes. A child can get low blood sugar if the holiday meal is at 2:00 instead of 12:00, setting off their sensory overload before the meal even starts. Consider having your holiday mealtime at the family’s normal time of the day for lunch or dinner.
- Consider the temperature of the food. Some children prefer cold food, some warm, some room temperature.
- Children who are sensitive to sound may benefit from quiet conversations and soft background music during mealtime.
- Finally, here are some activities you can do ahead of time to make the day more peaceful and enjoyable.
- Physical activity before mealtime will help a child’s nervous system be in a more neurologically regulated state. Add deep relaxed breathing, and you have a recipe for calm alertness. Get outside and play!
- Let your child help with Holiday meal preparations. This too can help with minimizing anxiety, because it’s engages them to participate in meaningful occupation, which helps the child feel included, when they may feel different because of their sensory needs.
- Children with SPD may feel anxious about what to expect when mealtimes are different than most mealtimes. Talk to them ahead of time about who is coming to visit for dinner. Perhaps let the child set the table, allowing them to select who sits where. They could even work on fine motor skills and make place cards with family member name.
And remember: children who are picky eaters as a result of sensory challenges feel like their body and the environment are controlling them. Giving these children a sense of control helps to decrease anxiety. Allowing choices ahead of mealtime, and during mealtime, shifts their sensory system from stress response to the ‘rest & digest’ mode. For example, let the child select their favorite plate ahead of time or choose a plush animal to sit with them. What is the child’s favorite comfort item?