How to Celebrate - Sensory Style

In the wake of the spring holidays, I was reminded of the importance of preparation when it comes to celebrating with our sensory kids. Holidays, family gatherings and birthday parties can be times of great joy, but for our sensory kids they can be times of great anxiety and frustration. I remember vividly bringing my son to celebrations before I had a greater understanding of his sensory needs. Immediately upon walking into a party he would begin to cry, he would become overwhelmed by the people and triggered by the noise and stimulation. We would often end up in a quiet corner feeling isolated while I tried to soothe him, and sometimes we would simply have to leave because it was just too much. Does this mean our sensory kids can’t celebrate? No, but it does mean we have to prep and plan in order for them to be successful. Here are seven steps that I have found create a more successful sensory celebration:

1. Ask yourself, is it worth it?

When you receive an invitation to a birthday party, your heart sinks as you know this will cause you and your child stress. Explore the details and decide if it is worth it. Is your child overstimulated by lights and loud noises? If it’s a disco bowling party, he’s probably not going to be successful, so don’t force it. We want sensory kids to learn to manage more, but we don’t want to thrust them into situations that they cannot handle. Your sensory kid may not be able to do everything, and that’s okay. 

2. Scope out the space

Before a big event check out the space. If you are attending an easter egg hunt at your cousin’s house ask if you can stop by the week before the party. Find a place to park that is easy to get out of if need be. Ask your cousin to show you where the festivities will be. Will there be balloons or other sensory triggers? Ask if music will be playing and where, ask what food will be served and ask anything else you can think of that would be helpful for you or your child to know.

3. Find a “safe space”

After you have an understanding of what the party will look and feel like, ask your cousin what rooms won’t be used during the party. Ask if you can use a room for a safe space for you and your child (this can be done anywhere, whether you are going to an arena or a park. You can always scope out a safe space). By preplanning where this space will be, you will know exactly where to go if you see your child feeling stressed.

4. Frontload 

Frontloading means preparing your child for what’s to come before the event. You want your child to know all the details. After wake up, they will have breakfast, after breakfast they will get dressed in their Paw Patrol shirt, then they will go to mom’s car, drive to cousin Susie’s house, etc. You will let them know where the safe space is that you have scouted and make a plan of how they can tell you they need a break. You can provide your child with a visual schedule, a map or talk them through the day. Whatever you do, just make sure they know what’s coming.

5. Pack your “Sensory Tool Box”

Make sure you bring tools that help your child calm down and avoid overstimulation. If your child is triggered by loud noises, bring noise canceling headphones. My son is soothed by vibration so I bring a small vibrating toy when we go places. You can bring squishy toys, fidgets, or music. Bubbles can be extremely useful as they help kids breathe in and out. When you see something soothe your child add it to your tool bag. Also, it’s always good to being snacks that you know your child likes in case the food where you are going isn’t food they are comfortable with.

6. Make an exit plan

Before a party talk to your child about what you can do if it gets to be too much. Show her where you will park and let her know you can leave at anytime. If your child doesn’t want to stand out come up with a signal or code word they can use to let you know they’ve had enough. When your child tells you they’ve had enough, listen and be proud they were there for as long as they were.

7. If it doesn’t go well ask yourself what did we learn, what can we do next time?

Even with all the best laid plans sometimes it doesn’t work. Your child may be triggered by an element (external or internal) you did not prepare for, or they may just be having a hard day. Do your best not to blame yourself as you did everything you could to make this celebration successful. Use it as a teachable moment and an opportunity to improve your planning for the next time. 

It’s not easy celebrating with a sensory kid, but when you prepare and plan, it can be a lot of fun for everyone. You’ve got this!