Lights and Sounds and Holiday Time, Oh My!

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

November winds have brought in a change in weather along with an anticipation of the upcoming holiday season.  The sights, scents, and sounds of this time bring back wonderful memories of the past for some. Unfortunately, those same sights, scents, and sounds may also trigger high levels of anxiety and a sense of overwhelm in others. When preparing for your holidays, whether in a classroom, therapy room, or home; keep in mind your students, clients, guests, and self. Please be aware that this is not a post focused on taking away holiday traditions. Instead, we can take those traditions and make them more accessible to everyone.

Let’s start in the classroom or therapy room. We exist in a day and age where holidays are celebrated in different ways. Some classrooms are permitted to decorate for the various holidays, while others are not. No matter what the guidelines of your school or center are in the decorating or celebrating of holidays, there are specific ideas to keep in mind. First, remember that there is an energy which flows through the very air at this time of the year. It is a sense of anticipation and excitement for many of our students. So, the first thing to create is a place that maintains calm. If decorations are permitted, put them out in a tasteful and purposeful manner. Have a set area of the room which recognizes those holidays but maintain one area that is holiday-free. If you already have a sensory space in your room, use that as the holiday-free area.

Watch the use of any scents in classrooms and therapy rooms which are not normally being used. For example, I have been in some therapy rooms which used infusers with scents like peppermint, lemon, or orange to increase focus and awareness. I have also seen the use of essential oils in both classrooms and therapy rooms. Essential oils which promote focus or wellness are in some rooms and create an engaging environment. However, be careful adding something new to environments. Although scents like pine, cinnamon, and apple might be appropriate in the home environment, they might be triggers and confusing in the classroom or therapy room. Be consistent with what you have been doing and do not cause confusion by changing the routine.

Be aware of lighting. Some individuals do not like lighting, especially the LED lighting of today. I have been in several sensory rooms which do use tree lights on the ceiling. But they use it as a matter of setting a mood. Therefore, using similar lighting in classrooms can cause confusion in some. Watch for the overall brightness due to the number of the lights too as it can be painful to some.

In the home environment, decorate as you normally would. Be sure to introduce each decoration and explain why you are putting it out. If it is something of a tradition for you already, share that information with others so that they understand the tradition. Invite the individual to help, but understand if they don’t wish too. Be sure to ask if they don’t like some traditions. For example, my son did not like watching the original version of the Grinch. Ironically, he did not like the scene near the end where the Grinch’s heart grows and the colors that flash out when this happens. So be aware that parts of television and movies can be something that causes some triggering. He still does not like that scene today.

Prepare all individuals for special meals and family gatherings.  Have practice dinners with simple ingredients. Perhaps, introduce foods and flavors earlier so that there are no surprises at the meal itself. Realize too that any cooking going on automatically changes some of the scents of the house. Again, have a place where individuals can go to “escape” the holidays. Whether it is a bedroom or area of the house or apartment not being used, introduce that as a safe space. Discuss prior to the gathering the location and what can be done there like reading or just sitting quietly. Have some noise-cancelling or noise-reducing headphones available in case the level of sound is what is creating the overload. Home should always have a safe place.

If you are travelling, think about the place to which you are going. How might you handle any escalations there? Keep in mind rooms where an individual can go to calm down. It is absolutely appropriate, if an escalation is taking place, to move the individual to a different location and let him or her watch a tablet or listen to music through headphones. I realize that it is not easy trying to explain behaviors like this to anyone, even family. I just spoke with a mother who dreads the holidays because her family does not understand escalations or how to work with them, believing the child to simply be ill-behaved. In situations like that, plan for briefer stays. Maybe even do some prep work with the family as a whole, although that is a daunting task in itself.

The final focus for the holiday season must be for yourself! Take time each day for your own special time. Find that activity which best fits your needs. For some, it might be hitting the gym, taking a run, riding a bike, or engaging in yoga. For others, it might be a cup of hot herbal tea and some time for reflection. The important thing to remember is that this type of time is essential. Please be sure to find that time, even if it is only 5 minutes, as you are critical in this whole process. What you have to do is to make sure that you are actually relaxing and re-energizing your body and mind. Some make the mistake of thinking that by simply reading a fictional book or vegging in front of a screen is the same. The reality is that those latter actions are simply avoidance tendencies which do not aid the body in overall relaxation. Find that activity which replenishes yourself as the holiday season can be even more stressful for you as you are dealing with so many issues, including hosting gatherings and getting gifts!

Be present to yourself and your needs. Then, you can be present to each individual and his or her needs. Remember, we can continue with holiday traditions and activities. We just need to create additional ways of access for everyone, even those with significant sensory issues.

May this be a wonderful season for you, your family, and all with whom you work! We here at School Health wish you the best!  If you have any questions for me, please contact me at


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter