For children who have sensory processing differences, Passover can be a very challenging holiday. Sensory integration refers to how our our minds and bodies continuously process, filter and respond to information from our surroundings in order to pay attention, behave in a flexible manner and interact with others.
The four questions may look slightly different under the circumstances ….
Why do I have to sit for such a long time? Why is everyone singing way too loud? Why do these foods smell so awful? Why can’t I just eat what I want?
Here are some strategies for successfully getting through the Seder(s) and the days that follow…
1. Visuals, social stories and videos: Luckily, there are now a plethora of available visual schedules and social stories to be used before and during the Seder. Don’t discount the importance of YouTube videos, particularly G-dcast and the ever present parody music videos; this is an effective way to tell the story of our people’s Exodus from Egypt while also creating more positive associations for your child prior to the Seder.
2. Preparation and direct involvement: Make sure to explain the process of cleaning out the Chametz in a way that your child can understand, and also make sure they understand that their favorite foods will return to their designated place immediately following the holiday. Consider a visual such as a calendar where each day of Passover can be crossed off (a sticker or a penny to represent each passing day may also be useful). Before Passover even takes place, show your child the ‘substitute foods’ in their boxes so that they know what they will be eating. Consider creating a menu with options that are agreeable to a picky eater. If your family makes other changes that are not part of the normal routine (such as using two different sets of plates to keep Kosher), consider paper plates and plastic utensils instead to make your child more comfortable and less anxious. If your child is on a gluten free diet, there are plenty of resources available; make sure to communicate with your Seder hosts on this and other issues. If he or she enjoys assisting with the cooking or meal preparation, this is another excellent way to directly engage them in learning about the holiday.
3. Sensory and behavior strategies: Make sure your child is wearing fabrics that he or she finds comfortable, in order to decrease the odds of a clothing-related meltdown. During the Seder, don’t forget the items that might help your child– a Move N Sit cushion to stay in one place longer, headphones for a child that can’t tolerate singing and noise, fidgets (perhaps Plague themed?), and of course movement breaks and rewards for expected behaviors. It may be helpful to isolate a particularly powerful reinforcer to be used only during the seder or the week of Passover.
4. Creating positive associations: Make sure to take pictures or video in order to capture moments of flexibility and engagement during Passover. These will be valuable in reviewing with the child so that they can be proud of themselves, and will be a particularly useful tool during next year’s preparation phase!
Jaime Bassman, MS, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with over a decade of experience in early intervention, preschool and school-based settings. Through her initative Azar: Occupational Therapy Supports for Jewish Learning, she provides supports to Jewish schools and camps. Don’t forget to like Azar on Facebook to receive more information and resources.