As a pediatric occupational therapist (OT), I can’t help but think about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the development and growth of children with disabilities. I’m sharing a guide to sensory friendly Diwali celebrations if you have children with disabilities. It has evidence-based and culturally relevant recommendations to protect you and your child during celebrations and return to social gatherings.
The biggest desire of parents within the pandemic of COVID-19 is for their children to reintegrate into a normal lifestyle — to have fun with friends, enjoy milestones and not have to worry about their mental health and social skills. For parents who have a child with a disability, the focus is shifting towards supporting the development of their child while also readjusting to the routine and norms of pre-pandemic life.
When a child has a disability such as autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual or learning disabilities, they typically require treatment to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social functions. Children with disabilities may also experience difficulty with sensory processing. Sensory processing is how our brains break down and understand what’s going on in front of us so we can act or respond in an appropriate way. For example, when you smell something warm coming out of the oven, your brain processes the smell which triggers a memory or a connected feeling. Your brain then tells your body to go toward the smell to discover what it is.
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What is Sensory Processing?
Now think of a time when you’ve been driving on the highway at peak traffic — cars are frantically entering and exiting the road as you’re trying to get to your destination safely. Now imagine a highway where you see cars that represent each of your senses. Each car is driving safely in its lane and entering and exiting as it needs to deliver information to the brain for processing or to our bodies for us to speak or act appropriately in response to something we’ve experienced.
When a child has sensory processing difficulties, the cars might not be driving at the right speed, in the right lane or to the right destination. It can be harder for the cars to get to where they need to be and at the right time. For those of us who don’t have sensory processing challenges, our brains are able to process, organize, understand and respond in the blink of an eye. For those who do have sensory processing difficulties, our brains may feel disorganized, which leads to feelings that can look like frustration, anger, sadness, overexcitement, the “sillies” and more depending on the individual. When you’re unable to process the sensory information of multiple experiences or events at once, it can lead to feelings of difficult or disruptive behaviors. In children, this may look like anger, running around, yelling and crashing into people or objects. For example, if you have multiple people talking to you while you’re trying to eat and you hear a loud noise occur without warning, that can be painful or frightening from a sensory standpoint. For children who become dysregulated by sensory stimulation, they may have meltdowns or seem overexcited. For children who are underwhelmed by sensory information or are not receiving enough of it, they may demonstrate reckless behaviors such as tantrums
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Here are a few tips on how you can make sure you’re ready for the celebrations:
- Reach out to planners: Let your friends or family who are planning Diwali gatherings know that you and your family will be attending, but you want to ensure your child is going to be able to participate! Let the hosts know about any potential food restrictions or concerns you have. Ask about any sensory events that might be taking place so you can be prepared at that time (poojas with open flames, fireworks, etc.) Also share any concerns about your child being able to participate in fun activities or with other similar-aged peers. It could be helpful for you to create a one-page sheet (laminated) or a Google doc you can keep handy and share with others.
- Talk to your child’s providers (occupational therapists, developmental therapists) about your concerns and seek advice from them: Each child typically has a plan of care to manage sensory challenges if they are diagnosed or demonstrate sensory processing difficulties. If you don’t have one, you can ask your doctor or pediatrician about “sensory diets.” Sensory diets are plans that direct physical exercise and activity, sensory activities and recommendations of your child’s sensory needs. By practicing this prior to your event, you can support your child being well-regulated and calm upon arrival. You can also bring things that provide your child comfort and calm them down, like fidget toys, chews or weighted blankets etc.
- Involve your support team (your spouse, other children, and extended family like grandparents, aunts and uncles)
- Share your concerns with your support system- especially if you are attending any Diwali events together. Talk about what some parts of the events might require supervision or additional support for your child. Come up with a game plan for how you envision the night to go.
- Decide who is going to keep an eye or check in on your child and when.
- Determine if you need to bring any food from home and who is responsible for that.
- Discuss how you’ll communicate with your partners or support system any concerns or the need for a break during the event
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- Practices for you and your child. In the days leading up to the event, practice wearing the clothing you and your child will be wearing. If there are sensitivities to the traditional clothing that your child hasn’t experienced in a long period of time, it will give them the chance to get used to the sensations again. With the help of your therapist or maybe another experienced parent, expose your child to some of the music they might hear at the party if it’s been a long time since they’ve heard it so they can get used to it again.
- Use a social story. Social stories are narratives with pictures that are short and to the point that you can use to reinforce norms and behaviors you expect with your child, but also what sensory experiences the child can expect to experience at the event. You can include expected reactions to the sensory parts of the experiences so you can encourage your child to follow the examples in the story to respond appropriately in real life. Reinforce appropriate responses (i.e., if the child hears loud noises, asking for their headphones).
- Check in with your child during the event. Look for signs your child might be feeling overwhelmed — offer deep squeezes along arms and legs, from fingertips to shoulders and feet to thighs. You can also provide hugs with a lot of pressure to offer comfort to your child’s sensory system.
Why does sensory processing matter when it comes to Diwali?
South Asian festivals and celebrations are a sensory experience in itself! When we reminisce of Diwali celebrations, we think back to colorfully decorated diyas that are lit continuously, bright decorations and various smells and tastes of sweets and dishes. From a sensory standpoint, this can be an immense amount of information for the brain to organize and process; especially, for anyone who has sensory processing difficulties. Children with disabilities who may have sensory processing disorders, along with other disabilities, may not be able to communicate or express their emotional needs. This can be incredibly stressful not only for the child, but for the parents. The emotional stress for parents increases when they really want to make sure their child has an enjoyable and inclusive experience. With the potential for exclusion of the children and parents to occur because of the increased needs of a child with sensory processing challenges, the mental load and anxiety in these individuals can rise tremendously.
With upcoming celebrations taking place at home or an outside venue to celebrate other South Asian holidays and Diwali, parents will have to consider keeping up with COVID guidelines but also making sure their child has a sensory friendly experience.
Disability is often not spoken about in South Asian communities, and although this is slowly beginning to change, the need for dialogue to occur to produce resources for those in need is dire now more than previous years. That’s why having a guide to sensory friendly Diwali celebrations if you have children with disabilities is helpful. It has evidence-based and culturally relevant recommendations to protect you and your child during celebrations and return to social gatherings. By having these conversations, we can change the verdict on South Asian identities and disability and prove by creating inclusive environments that serve the needs of everyone, that everyone can engage and participate in events, celebrations, gatherings, etc., as they please. If a parent with a child who has a disability is reading this, please take this moment to celebrate the amazing job you are doing to support your child and their needs. Most of all, I hope you are able to join your communities with your children and use this guide to ensure an inclusive and enjoyable time!