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Planning a Sensory-Friendly and Neurodiversity-Honoring Holiday Celebration

Patterns were a key factor in the Christian Nativity Story and remain an important contributor to everyone’s learning. When the Wisemen noticed there was a different star in the sky and discovered that it led them to Bethlehem, they were using a learning process that is now called pattern logic. We all see and understand patterns through comparison and contrast, and this process can tell us a lot about our own and our children’s sensory preferences.

BY Janice Ryan, OTR/L, HSDP | December 2021 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

Planning a Sensory-Friendly and Neurodiversity-Honoring Holiday Celebration

Pattern logic can also tell us, how to support our children as we build trust, and they avoid developing the emotional challenges that commonly plague adults who grew up with sensory processing differences. Winnie Dunn has developed several versions of a strengths-based approach to assessing and planning healthier life experiences for people with sensory processing differences. She is an occupational therapy pioneer in promoting neurodiversity.

As Jenara Nerenberg, the founder of The Neurodiversity Project says, “we are all different flavors of human.” Research has shown over and over that trust builds the feeling of “psychological safety.” The feeling of psychological safety gives us the freedom to show the world our true self rather than putting a mask over our differences.

First, we will look at the four Sensory Profiles you might spot during your holiday celebration. Then, we will look at some of the behavior patterns that each of those Sensory Profiles can cause. We will end with some take-aways that you can use to create a sensory-friendly and neurodiversity-honoring celebration this holiday season. 

Sensory Seeker and Sensory Bystander Profiles

Both Sensory Seekers and Sensory Bystanders require more intensity than most people to process sensory information from their outside environment. Sensory Seekers have an active response to the feelings of boredom and disengagement that come from not having enough intensity to activate sensory processing. This causes them to have behaviors that might be called sensory intensity enhancers. Sensory Bystanders have a passive response to the feelings of boredom and disengagement that come from not having enough intensity to activate sensory processing. This causes them to have behaviors that might be called delayed meltdowns. 

Sensory Avoider and Sensor Profiles

Both Sensory Avoiders and Sensors feel sensory information from their outside environment with greater intensity than most people. Sensory Avoiders have an active response to experiencing too much intensity to activate sensory processing. This causes them to have behaviors that might be called sensory intensity dampeners. Sensors have a passive response to the feelings of discomfort that come from having too much intensity to activate sensory processing. This causes them to have behaviors that might be called delayed meltdowns. 

Holiday Sensory Seeker and Sensory Bystander Behaviors

A Sensory Seeker at a holiday celebration may experience sensory input as pleasurable that others consider annoying. They might make loud noises or fidget at the holiday dinner table. They may explore their food with their fingers or chew on nonedible objects like their napkin or eating utensil. They might have a hard time staying in their chair and annoy those they are seated beside by touching or pressing up against them.

Sensory Seekers are doing this because they are unconsciously trying to enhance the intensity of sensory information coming from their outside environment. This explains why a Sensory Seeker’s occupational therapist may have made recommendations that add sensory value to everyday activities. Examples of these are playing music and providing fidget toys to promote attention for work or sitting on an inflatable seat cushion to intensify the rewarding feelings of squirming to promote better posture.

A Sensory Bystander at a holiday celebration may need as much sensory input as a Sensory Seeker but, they are passively accepting the boredom and disengagement that they are experiencing. You want to understand and ideally help your child understand their own sensory needs because this is the way you build enough trust to help them keep their “I’m different” mask off. This is the way to help them develop the feeling called psychological safety. 

Holiday Sensory Avoider and Sensor Behaviors

A Sensory Avoider at a holiday celebration may want nothing to do with activities that may be pleasurable for others. They might feel overwhelmed with holiday music that others enjoy. They may be uncomfortable with having holiday guests at the family dinner table and come across to others as being stubborn or controlling.

Sensory Avoiders are doing this because they are unconsciously trying to dampen the intensity of sensory information coming from their outside environment. This explains why a Sensory Avoider’s occupational therapist may have made recommendations to maintain daily rituals that are easy to manage and that limit sensory input during a holiday celebration. Examples of these are getting dressed in everyday rather than special clothes, taking frequent breaks in a comfortable part of the house with low stimulation or having time to socialize more with familiar rather than unfamiliar people.

A Sensor at a holiday celebration may be as sensory sensitive as a Sensory Avoider but, they are passively accepting the discomfort that they are experiencing. You want to understand and ideally help your child understand their own sensory needs because this is the way you build enough trust to help them keep their “I’m different” mask off. This is the way to help them develop the feeling called psychological safety. 

Sensory-Friendly Take-Aways

  1. Help everyone look beneath the behavior. Holidays are sometimes stressful for the families of children with extreme Sensory Profiles. Some of you may have experienced a holiday gift exchange when your Sensory Avoider child wouldn’t wear a single piece of clothing a grandparent gave them. Some of you may have experienced a holiday meal that you hoped could feel relaxed and instead, your Sensory Seeker child kept everyone else on the edge of their seats. By teaching everyone at your holiday gathering how to use pattern logic to understand Sensory Profiles, you just might teach someone about the beauty of neurodiversity.
  2. Read your environment for clues. Lighting, color, sound, textures, unfamiliar touch, and unusual smells are all possible discomforts for Sensory Avoiders. Is there a way to use softer lighting or a favorite aroma that will increase his or her tolerance to unfamiliar events and therefore avoid a meltdown? Having to sit and stay quiet for long periods of time may be more than your Sensory Seeker can handle. Is there a way to provide opportunities for movement and heavy work that will increase his or her tolerance to quiet events and therefore avoid a meltdown? It is important for us to show others how the power of well-designed multisensory environments can change the stress response equation for people with extreme Sensory Profiles.
  3. Practice self-care. Mindfulness practices and relaxation breathing have become commonplace in classrooms of students who have sensory processing differences. These are healthy self-care routines for everyone to know and can be especially useful for the families, caregivers, and teachers of children with extreme Sensory Profiles. Research showing the positive benefits of mindfulness and the relaxation response have been around for about 50 years now so, it’s time for us to use these practices to help our kids and others with extreme Sensory Profiles.
  4. Avoid sensory sensitivities and emotional triggers. Remembering that everyone has sensory preferences will do much to help your family circle, set conditions for building trust with more empathy and compassion for Sensory Profile differences. We are all pattern spotters and when everyone in your family learns to spot the sensory reason for behaviors, trust grows by becoming less about “how you make me feel” and more about “how we can all feel together.” This is a great way to start creating future generations that value and enjoy neurodiversity.
  5. Build trust over time. Creating a better future for your child with an extreme Sensory Profile will be a lifetime journey… but it can be a fun one. Research on the strengths-based approach to assessing and planning healthier life experiences for people with sensory processing differences have only been completed during recent decades. This is one reason that educating everyone on the importance of trust-building across our differences is so important. Whatever your collective family Sensory Profile, broadening the neurodiversity conversation will spread the word that we are all just different flavors of human. 

Here’s wishing you and your family a sensory-friendly holiday and a peace-filled new year!  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Janice Ryan, OTD, OTR/L is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy and is the owner of Attunement Solutions, LLC, Chattanooga, TN. She is Director of Research for Sensory Health and a certified trainer for American Association of Multi-Sensory Environments, and has completed evidence-based practice research on the therapeutic benefits of multi-sensory environments and multi-sensory activities as an adjunct professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, TN. Janice continues to mentor interns and complete evidence-based practice research at Orange Grove Center, Chattanooga, TN.

References 

Benson, H. (1975/2000). The relaxation response. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Brownlee, D. (2019). 5 reasons why trust matters on teams. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2019/10/20/5-reasons-why-trust-matters-on-teams/?sh=32f4ab632d60

Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Dunn, W. (2014). Sensory Profile 2. Bloomington, MN: PsychCorp.

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Nerenberg, J. (2020). Divergent mind: Thriving in a world that wasn’t designed for you. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Sisk, D., & Kane, M. (2018). Planting seeds of mindfulness: Creating the conditions to help gifted kids. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.  

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