One area of struggle for children who have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is dealing with visitors, especially during the Holidays. It isn’t that the child doesn’t want or like visitors. It stems more from having to face ‘new’ when the ‘same’ has always felt safer.
Having visitors in our home, no matter who they are, can be a huge source of stress for children with SPD for several reasons:
- Someone is ‘invading’ their safe place, interrupting a regular and predictable routine.
- They worry obsessively that something about that person, or something they’ll do, will bother them and they’ll melt down.
- Someone will be trying interacting with them or may try touching them or their things.
Such concerns may seem extreme to people who do not live in the home to witness the very real fear these children live with due to their high sensory issues. It can get to the point for parents where the child’s reactions to social activities and interactions can cause such a high level of stress, they start to limit such visits or avoid them completely. Of course in doing so, the child will not learn to cope in the world outside of their safe place or give her opportunities to practice the coping skills she’s learning in therapy.
Occupational therapists offer guidance for parents of children with SPD in creating plans to help the child cope with visits to the home, as well as help the visitors feel more at ease.
Here are a few strategies to try:
1) Inform. The first way to help a sensory-sensitive child cope with get-togethers is informing guests about the child’s needs. That doesn’t mean parents need to give a full presentation with flow charts, pamphlets and statistics. But guests should be given enough information about SPD, as well as the child’s specific form of it, so that the guest(s) feel comfortable and the child feels safe.
2) Prepare. This, of course, is age-dependent. In the case of an infant, guests will simply need to understand any recognizable triggers at that point. For children who are a bit older and able to communicate in some way may, being told that people are coming, who they are and for how long will be enough. With older children, using social stories to work through the visit, do a countdown to the day using the calendar, or checklists to what needs to be done in getting ready for the big day are all useful ideas. Organization and structure are keys in helping children with SPD so parents need to tap into these areas in creating the best possible environment for the visit.
3) “Me” Place. For some children, it could be something as simple as a designated spot on the couch that’s tented where they are able to curl up with a favorite comfort toy. For others, creating a place in a hall closet or other small space, separate from the living/visiting place, armed with a few sensory fidgets or other comfort objects like his pillow, a flashlight and favorite books would be ideal. Sensory-sensitive children need to have a special place separate from the rest of the household, a “me” space, where they can regroup, recoup and calm down. Having this space ready to go before guests arrive may ease some the child’s stress as he’ll know he has a place to go to when things become too overwhelming.
4) Fun For All. Visits to the home may be initially uncomfortable for visitors because they may not know how they can interact with these children. What can make visits easier is when guests take the time to understand what works for the child and what often causes struggles beforehand. A great idea is for the visitor to bring activities everyone can do together, bearing each sensory-sensitive child’s needs and abilities in mind (eg: fine motor crafts, ‘touchy/feely’ crafts, baking fun, etc.). Another idea is to offer specific sensory-rich activities for guests to do with each child during their visits. This not only builds up trust with the child, it also offers visitors a way to connect with and have fun in ways they may not otherwise be able to.
5) Transition. What may also help, as mentioned earlier, is having a countdown both to when a visitor is coming (“One hour until Robin comes.”) as well as to when he or she leaves (“In about 20 minutes, Daddy will take Robin to back to her hotel.”) These things help children with SPD stay organized and on track because they know what’s happening and when. It also helps to have a little talk or other cue in between each activity done during the visit (“Let’s have another 10 minutes doing _____, then we can _____.”). Again, this is a way to keep that structure and routine strong, even when there’s something new added.
Visits don’t have to be stressful and there can’t possibly be preparation for every tiny thing that ‘might’ happen. However, parents can do what’s in their power to make visits as fun, interactive and memorable as possible. And that’s so important.