Use Sensory-Friendly Greetings To Manage Your Child’s Sensory Overload

Does your child run and hide when guests arrive at your home during the holidays? Maybe your child cries when a long-lost relative goes to hug them. Does your child shy away and become silent when greeted by holiday guests? If these scenarios resonate with you, then you may be worried about how your child will cope with greetings during the holidays. If you have a child with sensory differences, this time of the year is stressful. Take matters into your own hands and introduce sensory-friendly greetings! Help your child feel comfortable. Give friends and family a fun way to engage with your child, on your child’s terms.

For children with sensory disorders, greeting friends or family members, especially unfamiliar ones, may be a problem. While hugging and handshakes are considered the norm and an acceptable way to meet or greet someone, they are not always comfortable. That is true for children and for many, many people with sensory sensitivities. Set everyone up for success by introducing sensory-friendly greetings.

Cathy Adams provided additional insights for this blog post. Adams is the Executive Director at the Upper Valley Autism Resource Centre and the mother of a child with autism who experiences sensory sensitivities.

Child and father fist bumping each other for a sensory-friendly greeting.

Why do some people find typical greetings uncomfortable?

Do you wonder why greetings are uncomfortable for some people? People have different sensory preferences when it comes to physical touch. Some people are uncomfortable with eye contact. Other people have difficulty processing multiple new senses at once, e.g. hearing a new voice, seeing a new person, at the same time. The Christmas holidays, for example, often come with new and unfamiliar sensory experiences.

For example, have you ever watched your child look uncomfortable when pressured to embrace a relative or family friend? You might have experienced that discomfort yourself. It is important to understand that these feelings are common. Make people feel comfortable by giving new and fun ways to greet each other that start visits off in a good and positive way. Instead of you feeling like you have to apologize for your child and your child in tear and your guest puzzled.

Young person smiling holding a present.

Adams discussed her child’s behaviours while greeting other people. She explained that he does not engage in “small talk” and will not often reciprocate greetings. For example, Adams remembers her son being greeted every morning by his principal and trying to find strategies to encourage him to respond. Although she has developed tactics to motivate her child to engage in these simple greetings, she explained that her son simply does not feel the desire or need to greet others.

What are some signs of discomfort or sensory overload?

Firstly, it is important to recognize the signs of when your child may be uncomfortable and overwhelmed. According to a research paper by Louise Parks (2018) titled, “Sensory Overload: Quieting the Noise in Early Childhood Classrooms” sensory overload occurs when the brain and nervous system become disrupted while processing sensory information. For some children with sensory differences, communicating their feelings of discomfort may be difficult (Parks, 2018) 1. Therefore, it is essential to look at body language if your child is less likely to share their feelings.

Often, if a child feels uncomfortable, they may display behaviours including:

  • Being overly or abnormally quiet.
  • Avoid making eye contact.
  • Physically backing away from people.
  • Talking overly fast.
  • Appearing tense.

As a parent, it is important to understand that you cannot control the behaviours of your child. Especially when your child is doing something new or unfamiliar. . Adams explained that for years she felt the need to apologize for her child’s neurodiverse behaviour. She expressed that oftentimes he can become very loud in busier environments. Furthermore, he may disengage from conversations that he is uninterested in. However, she reiterates the importance of not placing that pressure on yourself as a parent to feel responsible and apologetic for these behaviours.

“Until this last year, I thought to myself why am I apologizing for him? This is just the way he is.”

Cathy Adams, autism mom, Executive Director of Upper Valley Autism

What are sensory-friendly greetings?

It is important to be aware of the different ways your child can use to greet your family members and friends. While hugs may be expected, introduce alternatives that helps your child engage on their terms. And still makes your guests feel invited. Find multiple examples below that you can download and print for your front door.

Key to using sensory-friendly greetings with success is to practice them first! Introduce them and practice them before they will be used. Make them familiar and fun and then use them with unfamiliar guests!

Infographic highlighting 10 sensory-friendly greetings.

Contact greetings

There are some contact greetings to select for child who prefer greetings with physical contact. Below are some common examples:

  • Hug. Let your child choose hugs when they are comfortable doing so!
  • Mitten handshake. Keeping mittens or gloves on, might make handshakes more comfortable for your child.
  • High-five.
  • Fist bump.
  • Elbow bump.
  • Foot bump. Boot bump. A little touch of the feet!

Contactless greetings

For people who prefer greetings that do not involve physical touch, consider the following greetings:

  • Wave. A simple wave. Or have some “reindeer” fun by waving hands over head like antlers.
  • Say “happy holidays!”
  • Air hug.
  • Wink.

Strategies for sensory-friendly greetings.

Ask about preferences

In addition to practicing beforehand, set up sensory-friendly greeting for success with some simple strategies.

Let people know that standard hugs might not be the norm in your household.

Adams explained that over the years her extended family has learned the types of greetings that are expected for her child. Therefore, her family does not expect her son to hug upon greeting. As a result of this, the type of his preferred greeting has been acknowledged and respected by others.

Observe the greeting initiated

Additionally, you may notice your guests do not all like hugs either! Respond to other people in ways that they initiate.

Use a little door sign

Another strategy to use a door sign, like the downloadable and printable sign in this blog. You can also simply have it on a tablet or phone. You may have seen this technique used by teachers to greet their students in the morning. Give your child the opportunity to choose the sensory-friendly greeting they prefer.

Make your family and your guests comfortable this holiday season by introducing greetings that are well suited to different preferences.

Special thanks to Cathy Adams for her valuable input on this blog post! Find out about her work with the Upper River Valley Autism Resource Centre.

Learn more about ways to create a sensory-friendly holidays and events for your family by checking out the following blog posts:

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  1. Park, L. (2018). Sensory Overload: Quieting the Noise in Early Childhood Classrooms. Child Care Quarterly.
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