4 Tips for Hosting a Sensory-Friendly Holiday Party

Imagine: you’re at a friend’s holiday party. The jingling of sleigh bells is a cacophony when combined with loud laughter, the lights decorating the tree are brighter than you’ve ever seen, and seemingly endless hugs are coming from every person in attendance. The sounds, the lights, and the touches quickly become too overwhelming to endure.

Our senses – taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing – deliver messages to our nervous system. The way we act behaviorally is in reaction to those messages.

When you hear that someone has sensory processing issues, sometimes relating to a disorder such as autism, ADHD, OCD, or anxiety, it means that the person has trouble handling the information their senses take in, resulting in sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, scratchy or irritating clothing, hugs, or social cues, like knowing where their body is in relation to other people.

If you’re hosting someone with special needs or sensory processing issues this holiday season, consider the following tips to make this over-stimulating time of year a little more sensory-friendly:

  1. Get an Understanding of Your Guest’s Sensory Difficulties Before the Party: Gather information so you feel prepared, and can keep environmental triggers that you may not have considered at a minimum. This could mean reducing the brightness of lights, not over-decorating, avoiding any noisy party favors, etc.
  2. Let Your Guest Know What to Expect in Advance: If your guest knows that it’s a 3-hour party with about 10 guests total, there will be light music, appetizers, and an exchanging of gifts, it will allow that person to feel prepared coming into the situation. Your guest can then decide whether or not to participate in certain planned activities.
  3. Keep Physical Contact to a Minimum (think: hugs!): Touch is a common sensory trigger. Find a non-tactile way to engage in greetings, and consider communicating this to others if you feel it would benefit your guest.
  4. Prepare a Quiet Area: Have a space where no one is present (space by the fireplace, a den with a movie, etc.) where your guest can go for relief from the crowd if a break is needed, or if things become over-stimulating. (Having noise-canceling headphones on-hand is a bonus!) Let your guest know about this space in advance or upon arrival.

Even if it’s not perfect, taking small steps to accommodate someone with sensory needs will go a long way in showing you care.

What are your tips and tricks for hosting a sensory-friendly gathering? Share in the comments below!

Tom Flis, MS, BCBA, LBA, LCPC, is a senior behavior specialist with Sheppard Pratt Health System, working on the Adult Neuropsychiatric Unit, which offers specialty care for adults with developmental and/or psychotic disorders. Tom is a board certified and licensed behavior analyst and a licensed clinical professional counselor who has more than 12 years of experience working with children and adults diagnosed with a developmental disability.