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Avoid Meltdowns This Holiday Season: OT Prof Shares Tips for Families of Children with Autism

By Lauren Whetzel Siburkis

Thanksgiving, like other large holidays, can throw a child with autism into sensory overload, said occupational therapy professor Varleisha Gibbs, OTD, OTR/L, at University of the Sciences. Visiting relatives’ homes – or simply having a house full of guests for the day – can be stressful for anyone, but for families of children with sensory processing disorders, these uncommon gatherings and activities can spark major meltdowns.

“Holidays with family can be dicey under the best of circumstances, but when you have children with special needs, some care must be taken,” said Dr. Gibbs. “It’s best to let your hosts or visitors know what special requirements are needed to make sure your child and entire family have a pleasant experience.”

Most importantly, Dr. Gibbs said to speak with family and friends prior to the gathering to let them know if your child has certain triggers that set them off. For instance, some children with sensory processing disorders do not like to be hugged; whereas other children may just need time alone and a quiet space for which they can escape to relax and calm down.

Dr. Gibbs said these additional Turkey Day tips can also help make the holiday more enjoyable for families:

  • Have child’s favorite foods on hand. If your child has food sensitivities or dislikes certain foods, prepare or bring along his or her favorite foods to ensure your child has something to eat during the meal.
  • Pack a sensory backpack. Items such as music and headphones for their ears, Lego toys for their hands, and chewing gum for their mouths will help calm you child down if he or she is feeling overwhelmed and needs some “me time.”
  • Inform your guests. For relatives or guests that do not understand sensory processing disorders, or may not see your child often, speak with them beforehand about some of the unusual behaviors your child may exhibit to prevent them from being alarmed or uncomfortable during the day.
  • Dress for success. Avoid sensory meltdowns and discomfort by dressing your child in clothing he or she prefers. Some prefer soft clothing, while others like tight fitting, pressure producing clothing. Also, pack sunglasses and ear plugs for those with hypersensitivities to their surroundings.

“This holiday season, it’s my hope that all families, particularly those who are impacted by sensory issues, can enjoy stress-free gatherings simply by planning ahead,” said Dr. Gibbs, who earned her BA in psychology from University of Delaware, MS in occupational therapy from Columbia University in the City of New York, and doctor of occupational degree from Thomas Jefferson University.

Dr. Gibbs has written and spoken extensively on sensory processing disorders, and also co-authored Raising Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders: A Week-by-Week Guide to Solving Everyday Sensory Issues.

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Categories: News, Health Tip, Samson College, Department of Occupational Therapy, Occupational Therapy