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  • Manasa Veluvali

How to Make Your Diwali Celebrations More Accessible to Children with Sensory Processing Difficultie

Content note: The first paragraph has a description of sensory triggers and is primarily intended to be read by people without sensory processing issues.

Consider all the seemingly benign things that ‘get to you’ or ‘throw you off’: the incessant sound of the clock ticking, the loud twang of a doorbell, trying to focus when multiple people are speaking to you at once, trying to find a specific item amidst row after row of colourfully packaged products stacked in a supermarket, a certain fabric you cannot stand to wear, the texture of a food you find repulsive. These things can cause anyone mild levels of distress, and we all have some level of intolerance towards certain sensory stimuli.

For most people, these triggers are manageable, or avoidable. However, for those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or sensory difficulties, these happen with much greater intensity and frequency, and can feel like sensory assaults. SPD is common in autistic people, but can also exist separately. While adults may still be in a position to avoid known triggers to an extent, children have much less choice in the matter and must rely on their parents or caregivers for their needs to be heard and respected. This article focuses on supporting children with SPD during Diwali.

Why can Diwali be difficult for those with SPD?

While many distressing sensory stimuli are encountered every day, some situations are more notorious for causing sensory overload than others, even if they are meant to be enjoyable. Diwali is one such event, where the excessive lights, noises, chatter, food, and socialising can get quite overwhelming. The conventional ways of celebrating Diwali are, unfortunately, not hospitable to children with SPD or other sensory difficulties. Fireworks can often be heard from miles away, the ensuing smoke can be unbearable, traditional clothes can be made of uncomfortable fabric, relatives can be insensitive to one’s needs and insist that they partake in fireworks or socialising, the list is simply endless. What is meant to be an enjoyable event ultimately excludes people who don’t share the same idea of enjoyment. However, the conventional ways of celebrating must be altered to make the events more inclusive, as everyone is entitled to enjoying festivities.

How can we support children with SPD?

There are several steps we can take to ensure that celebrations will be inclusive for children with SPD.

  • Avoid fireworks: We are already aware of many compelling reasons to avoid using fireworks, such as their disastrous impact on the environment and air quality. However, fireworks also contribute greatly to sensory distress faced by persons with SPD. Eliminating them from your celebrations will make the environment more bearable for children with SPD and others who experience similar distress.

  • Comfortable clothing: One can ensure that the child’s clothes are comfortable, or allow them some time to get used to the material.

  • Lighting: Opt for soothing lighting for decoration, as opposed to overwhelming multicoloured or strobe lighting.

  • Tools for managing distress: Keeping the child’s preferred stim toys, ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones, or objects that provide sensory pleasure, within close reach.

  • Inform: Informing family or friends who will be organising the celebrations to bear in mind the needs of someone with SPD and accordingly make their preparations.

  • Communicate: Check in with the person in question to ensure that they are comfortable, and make them feel safe to express when they are expressing distress, would like something to be changed, or to want to leave the situation entirely.

How can we manage the impact of stimuli beyond our control?

While we must try our best to make an inclusive environment for everyone, it remains that, with a festival as widely and loudly celebrated as Diwali, many things will not be within our control. Despite our best efforts, there will still be a certain amount of exposure to loud sounds and bright lights in one’s neighbourhood. In order to reduce the impact of sensory overload brought about by Diwali, Dr Deepali Kapoor, Counselling Psychologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, has recommendations for parents of children with sensory processing difficulties, to ensure that Diwali is not a ‘nightmare’ but a ‘joyful event.’

Dr Deepali recommends that parents ‘start talking to [their children] some weeks in advance about the kind of sounds that they may hear, the smoke that may be generated, the colors of rangoli and the lighting of diyas.’ This could entail ‘lighting one or two scented candles much before the festival season to familiarise them’, ‘watching fireworks on the television’, or ‘watching a balloon pop from a distance.’ Here, it is important to not exacerbate the child’s sensory discomfort by exposing them to certain stimuli before they are ready, or if it causes them undue distress even on being exposed to stimuli in small amounts. She further recommends recognising and rewarding the children for their acts of bravery, as ‘recognition is the greatest motivator, but is rarely used.’ According to Dr Deepali, such practices provide the opportunity to manage their responses to distressing situations on their own, which will be helpful in navigating an unpredictable world.

How can we work together to create an inclusive environment?

Crucially, while there are multiple ways to manage sensory distress, the responsibility mustn’t fall solely on the child or their parents alone. As with all festivals, Diwali is a community-level event and must be made accessible to anyone who wishes to participate. Rohini Prasad, Managing Director at Kara Medical Foundation, emphasises that ‘the onus is not only on the parents to make a protective bubble around their kids. We can’t act on our own in a vacuum without releasing the impact our actions have on our neighbours and community.’

If you are aware that there will be persons with SPD in your neighbourhood or attending your celebrations, check in with them prior to the day, to see how you can make the environment more inclusive. This could entail making some changes to the lighting, music or food, eliminating the use of fireworks in your celebrations, and having a room away from the bustle that anyone requiring a quieter space could use at any point. It is also important to be open to making changes to the environment even during the celebrations, as what isn’t overwhelming in the beginning may quickly add up, making the environment unbearable. It can also be impossible to predict what will be triggering until during the event. The best way to ensure that your event or celebrations are accessible is to check with people with SPD and their parents themselves!

All that being said, the Kara Medical Foundation team wishes you and your loved ones a very happy and inclusive Diwali!

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