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Tips from Hopkins for a Sensory Friendly Holiday

Tis the season! The Hopkins team knows and understands that the holidays can bring both magical memories and a series of stressful snow days (regardless of the weather) for families raising neurodivergent youth and children with unique needs, learning disabilities, and sensory challenges. In the spirit of sparking ideas and supporting families raising differently wired kiddos, we’re sharing a few tips, tricks, and local businesses committed to keeping the holidays inclusive for all.

Our family's parenting journey began when we adopted our son at the age of five from Ethiopia in 2017. Initially, he lacked the cultural context, receptive, and expressive language skills to understand American holiday traditions. This, coupled with his neurodivergence (which wouldn't be formally diagnosed until years later) made navigating the season and shopping for him challenging. We started by paying attention to his passions and getting curious about his preferences.

Identify (and speak) your child's “love language:”

Grounded in the work of Gary Chapman, the five “love languages” can be a useful framework for navigating relationships, including family dynamics. We learned right away that our son's love language is quality time, so we try to shape gifts and family experiences around this knowledge.

Because he would rather go somewhere and do something with the people he loves, we try to give the gift of an ordinary or special experience instead of tangible gifts like toys. Some of his favorites include: the Denver Zoo, The Wild Animal Sanctuary, local restaurants, going to the movies (or movie nights at home), time at the swimming pool, hiking and spending time outdoors, and sleepovers at his grandparents' house.

If your child’s love language is quality time, know that the price tag on the experience is irrelevant -- it’s truly the time together that matters most.

quality time with your child is a gift for you both
Spend quality time with your child this holiday.

An afternoon baking cookies in the kitchen or driving around the neighborhood to see holiday decorations and lights may be even more meaningful to the receiver than expensive tickets to a seasonal attraction.

You can discover your own and your child's love language and learn more by taking the quiz.

Seek therapeutic and sensory-supportive gifts:

Raising a neurodivergent child with special needs means exploring different therapies and testing different tools to see what works best. We like to use the holidays as a way to support and broaden our son’s sensory diet and often purchase therapeutic tools as gifts. These have included things like a small trampoline when he was younger, puzzles and speech and language-oriented board games, playdough sets, adaptive swim lessons through local recreation center programs like A.R.I.S.E. in the city of Aurora, horseback riding and equine therapy

sessions at facilities that specialize in this like Praying Hands Ranch in Parker and the Temple Grandin Equine Center at CSU Spur, and more. We also love visiting the Autism Community Store in Aurora, a wonderful local business that can help you find a gift that supports specific goal areas or sensory needs for your child. The team there is knowledgeable, friendly, and inclusive. They recently helped us order the appropriate weighted blanket that aligns with our child’s size and needs, something we’re excited to see him unwrap this year.

Check out this “Sensory Gift Guide For All Ages” for additional ideas organized by age level and developmental stage.

Snag a subscription -- the small gift that keeps on giving:

Finally, there are lots of innovative monthly (or quarterly) subscription boxes available now that can be tailored to the special interests of your child. Boxes like “Sensory TheraPLAY" created by a pediatric OT, and "Sensory Scout" offer sensory-friendly toys and items. There are also interest-based and educational subscription boxes that get kids cooking or learning about different science and geography topics. These can be pricey, but families can also browse the options online, mine them for ideas, and use the offerings as creative fodder to "build your own" based on your child’s interests.

If your child is overwhelmed by the holidays, a subscription model also offers a way to give a small and manageable gift on the holiday itself, and the invitation to provide ongoing learning opportunities or experiences with each delivery throughout the year. As an animal enthusiast, my son loved getting Zoobooks magazines and looked forward to the snail mail surprise each month. Most subscription boxes can be easily canceled or the timeframe can be altered as family budgets change, the child grows, or interest wanes.

Whatever your child’s needs or passions, we hope all Hopkins families find some time and space to be together and celebrate the season in whatever way works best for your family. And know that we’re here, during both the busy holiday break and when school commences in the new year, to support your student’s cognitive, social, and behavioral growth. Happy Holidays from our team to your family

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