The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Joanna Grace

'Tis a sensory season!

Christmas can be an exciting but overwhelming time, particularly for young people with SEND. Joanna Grace shares strategies to help children cope with and enjoy the festive period. 

Stepping out the door in the early morning last week, I turned to my little boy and said, “I think I can smell Christmas.”

He stopped and, in all earnestness, turned his nose to the sky and concentrated. “Yes. I can smell Christmas too mummy.” The festive season is a serious and sensory business!

For all of us particular sensory memories, often smells, will bring past Christmases flooding back to us. However for people who process sensory information differently, the dramatic changes in their sensory landscape can be a lot to cope with at this time of year.

In this blog post you will find strategies to use to help people adjust to the changing sensory seasons, some gift ideas for those who might be seeking a sensory surprise in their stockings and an activity to delight your senses.

Christmas decorations

People who struggle to cope with change need to be fully briefed about the changes to come. It may be worth thinking about the following strategies.

  • If you have photos of what your setting looked like last Christmas, it can be good to look at these before decorating this year.
  • Put up decorations slowly over a week or so, rather than all at once. This can help people to adjust gradually to the changes in their environment. 
  • Consider keeping some spaces undecorated as safe zones for those who want to get away from the Christmas mayhem.
  • Some people will struggle with the visual difference of a decorated space. Let people know that the festive season will not last forever, and provide them with a countdown calendar for when the decorations come down.
  • Allow decorations to come down over time rather than all at once (to prevent the sudden jolt back to normality).

Adjusting to new sensations

Help people to adjust to some of the new scents and sensations that might be about to come their way by weaving them into activities a bit earlier.

Festive salt dough

I like to make salt dough and scent it with festive aromas: orange, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, etc.

Use it like playdough to model with. You don't have to make Christmas items, simply playing is fine.

Tinsel

In the same way, you can use tinsel in activities not related to Christmas to give people the chance to get used to the way the light reflects off it.

Try to involve it in activities people are already confident in taking part in. For a child who enjoys arts and craft the tinsel could be offered as part of a collaging activity, whereas for the child who loves football it could be used to mark an improvised goal on a playing field.

People who struggle to cope with change need to be fully briefed about the changes to come

Consider the sensory specifics of the Christmas the young person (or adult) you are supporting faces: what will it smell like, sound like, taste like, feel like and look like?

As with the examples above, try to find ways to weave these differences into their life now so that they are not so strange. In doing this you maximise their chances of being able to enjoy the sensations when they arrive.

Sensory gifts

A couple of years ago I was contacted by many parents of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities asking, "what can I buy my child for Christmas?"

Off the top of my head, I wrote a simple sensory shopping list of things I might look to buy. What would I add to it this year?

1) Curtain hooks and shower curtain hooks

Robust wooden or plastic hooks in bold bright colours make for a fabulous sensory fiddle for people whose fine motor skills are just emerging. Connect the curtain hooks with the shower curtain hooks to make chains or rattles or just strange conglomerations.

Exploring these will provide tactile, visual and auditory stimulation. Tie on ribbons of bright colours or interesting textures to add interest.

2) Child-proof mirror (i.e. one that won't break!)

Prop the mirror up in front of the young person or place it on the table in front of them with something under the far edge to tilt it towards them.

Draw their attention to the mirror by drawing on it with chalk pens (you could trace their reflection) or swirling glittery gloop around (mix edible glitter with something wonderfully sticky like syrup if you are brave enough!) As they engage with the visual stimulation of the glitter or the pen marks, they may bump into the best visual of all – their own face smiling back at them.

3) Smart plug socket

Use a smart plug (I would recommend the Philips Hue socket) to create your own interactive sensory environment.

Plug a light or a toy into it and control it from the app or by using your voice. Hand over control to the person for whom this gift is for.

4) Weighted blanket 

Weighted blankets can be very calming, especially for people who struggle with their proprioceptive systems. You can buy plastic pellets to weight blankets from many online retailers and in some craft stories.

  1. Sew channels into the duvet cover.
  2. Weigh out 10% of the person’s body weight in pellets and add a cup full into each channel, then sew across the channels to seal the pellets in and repeat until you have a blanket stitched in a grid formation with each pocket containing a cup full of pellets.
  3. Pop inside a second duvet cover.

Use for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.

5) Sensory stories

For a great sensory story, try Voyage to Arghan, Ernest and I or any of the stories at The Sensory Projects

I am very biased, but the reason I love the stories so much is because of the fun I've had with them over the years. They really are super.

6) Two tone sequin fabric 

There are lots of things you can buy with two tone sequin fabric stitched onto them already, offering tactile and visual stimulation. However, if you buy a meter’s worth you will be able to make lots of toys with it.

If you’ve got great sewing skills go to town, if you’re not so skilled with a needle try using a hot glue gun to attach it to the outside of a box, or clip it into an embroidery frame to give you a space to explore mark making.

Sensory delights for all

Christmas provides sensations in abundance; the key to delighting in them is to notice them, which can be particularly difficult in the hubbub of festive shopping.

Think of activities that can help you and your child or the young person you're with stop and take notice. Pausing to notice amidst the busyness will help you all to maintain your mental wellbeing within the chaos of Christmas. 

Here is one to get you started.

A Christmas rainbow

Cut a rainbow aperture out of a piece of plain card. Go and explore a Christmas market or look for some Christmas decorations, and try to find somewhere you can hold up your aperture to capture each colour of the rainbow.

For example, you might lay your rainbow over the red of a Father Christmas’ outfit so that the whole rainbow is filled with red. Then you might find a heap of satsuma’s waiting to be threaded into the bottom of Christmas stockings to be your orange and so on.

Christmas provides sensations in abundance; the key to delighting in them is to notice them

I have also done this activity by using a hole punch to cut seven star shapes out of a postcard and then finding a stars worth of each colour. I took a photo of the postcard each time and then spliced the pictures together so that each of my stars were filled with a different colour in the Christmas rainbow.

Creating moments of sensory wonder

If you are stuck for Christmas magic, stop and look around to be led by those who already know where it is. The child staring up in awe at the Christmas lights above, the older person breathing in the heavy steam of their mulled wine, the baby who stops crying at the sound of someone singing a carol.

We do not need to go to great and extravagant lengths to create moments of sensory wonder, we just need to stop and notice the wonder already present. Invite yourself back into that place and you will be better positioned to create Christmas magic for others.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Our Assessment within SEND conference takes place on Tuesday 4 February. This event will provide you with practical guidance to ensure effective, pupil-led SEND assessment within your school.

Secure your place.

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