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Family Gatherings with a Sensory Processing Disorder

Do you dread going to family gatherings with your child? I used to. I particularly worried about a family gathering that was at someone else’s home because our daughter would get overstimulated by the sights, the sounds, and the people. Then, in an effort to cope with the over-stimulation, she would run laps around the place. Sometimes she would end up bumping into people or furniture; I would be embarrassed by her behavior and worried about her safety. I learned through working with an occupational therapist (OT) that my daughter’s hyperactivity was partially due to having a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Sensory processing is the way the brain makes sense of information taken in from our bodies and the world around us, explains Carol Stock Kranowitz, MA,in her classic book, The Out-of-Sync Child. Kranowitz states there are five external senses and three internal ones. The most familiar are the external ones: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. The less familiar ones are the three internal senses. Kranowitz describes them as interoception (sensations from internal organs), vestibular (how we understand where our body is in space and stay balanced), and proprioception (information from stretching and contracting our joints and muscles). Most of us can easily make use of the information coming in from our external and internal senses and use it well. However, people with an SPD have difficulty managing the information coming in from their senses, explains Jocelyn Fisher, OT. Fisher has been working with children and their families for over 16 years. She helps parents and professionals increase their understanding of Sensory Processing Disorders. She also helps to create intervention plans that support the sensory needs of her clients.

Fisher explains that Sensory Processing Disorders can occur by themselves or with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. And SPDs are not just a childhood issue, they can also occur in adults. In addition, it is important to understand that we all have sensory needs, says Fisher. She suggests thinking about sensory needs as being on a continuum. On one end of the continuum are people who can take in the information from their senses and keep it organized. On the other end of the continuum are people who become disregulated by sensory information. Fisher explains that this disregulation can affect the person’s ability to function well at home, at school, at work, and/or in the community.

If you are not already connected to an occupational therapist, see if your family doctor or your child’s school can refer you to one.

In the meantime, check out these strategies to see which ones can help you take the hesitancy out of going to family get-togethers and parties if you have a child with SPD:

Determine your exit strategy. Before you go to the party, figure out when you will leave. It’s okay to leave events early if your child is becoming overstimulated. Let your host know up front that you might need to leave early. You also need to let your child know that you will be leaving early. Don’t make it punitive. Explain to your child that you can only stay until a specific time and then plan something else fun to do together afterward. Base your exit time on how long your child can typically handle being in a stimulating situation before becoming overstimulated.

Do a ‘workout’ before the party. Give your child opportunities to climb, run, and jump before they are stuck someplace where these things probably should not be occurring. Take the workout outside, if you can, or go to an indoor play centre if the weather is not on your side. Your child can also get some exercise at home by putting on a kid-friendly workout for them. My family’s favorites are on

Bring a friend. Either go with your partner or ask another adult that knows you and your child well to come to the party with you. The other adult can give you a break and share the responsibility of keeping your child safe. Be sure to explain to your partner or friend what type of support you need at the party.

Identify a quiet place. Ask your host if there is a room in the house where you can get away from the party and perhaps dim the lights. If there is nowhere to go, consider just taking a break in the bathroom with your child. You can calm them by hugging them close to your body and/or singing to them. You can also play quiet, relaxing music for them on your phone. Using headphones and your favorite meditation app, you can have your child listen to a quick kid-friendly meditation. Check out the app, Smiling Mind.

Create an activity bag. Keep a bag of fun things to do in your car. This bag only comes out when you are going to a family get-together or party. Include a variety of activities that travel well and will not be too disruptive. I would just pull the fun things out of the bag as needed when I would start to see signs that my daughter was getting over-stimulated. I would also have a list of meaningful busy work my child could do while at the party. For example, handing out napkins, counting the number of guests, helping to bring things from one place to another, etc.

Provide indoor movement breaks. Create a list of movement activities your child likes that would be appropriate to do indoors. Your child can do animal movements, like pretending to jump like a frog or bunny. Piggy back rides and horsey rides may not be your favorite thing to do, but it’s better than having your child run laps through someone else’s home. A quick game of Simon Says could also be helpful, especially if Simon Says things to do like jumping jacks or push-ups or walk like a bear. If appropriate, get the other kids at the party involved. If not ideal, go to a more private area of the home to play a quick active game together.

At first, it can feel awkward to incorporate some of these strategies at a family gathering. However, if your child has a Sensory Processing Disorder, their behavior is a clue to what they need to function well, says Fisher. If your child is prone to over-stimulation and it is important for you to be at the event, use these tips to put together a simple plan to make the get-together more enjoyable for both you and your child.

Karyn Robinson-Renaud, MSW, RSW, is a therapist and a writer. She lives outside of Toronto with her family.



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