Spending the Holidays Three Houses Down from America’s Christmas Lights Display Winner – #sonyholiday

Whitis Family Christmas House in Tallahassee, Florida. Winners of the GMA Contest.

Semper Fi Christmas House, Tallahassee, Florida

I’m spending the holidays in Tallahassee, Florida, which happens to be the town from which the Whitis family, the winners of Good Morning America’s “Our Lights Are Better Than Your Lights”, hail. I’m not only in the same town as this Christmas lights attraction, but approximately three doors down from it. When my family and I arrived after a very long drive yesterday, we had to get a police escort to stop traffic so we could get down the street to my sister’s house. Cars were lined up for at least a mile to get a chance to drive by the GMA winners’ home.

So what does it take to earn bragging rights for the best Christmas lights in the nation? Apparently, it takes 17,000 LED lights and a patriotic, red-white-and-blue light show set to the techno remix of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” I can’t say it’s a beautiful display – the word “tacky” comes to mind. But it certainly took a lot of effort and the winners have asked visitors and online admirers to contribute to the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that provides “immediate financial support for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.”

I took a few photos* of the Whitis’ lit-up home, but you can’t really appreciate the audaciousness of this light display until you watch the video complete with music. Thankfully, for the neighbors’ sake, the family has purchased some radio spectrum (92.3 FM) for the duration of the Christmas light show so the neighborhood doesn’t have to endure techno music repeating on a four-minute loop for five hours per night. (I understand there’s currently a lawsuit against the family because of the light and music display, which is probably one reason why the radio spectrum was purchased.)

Here’s the full video of the Whitis’ family’s Semper Fi Christmas House, which will be on display through Christmas night. I promise you this is real:



*All photos (except featured photo) taken with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-WX9 camera, which was provided courtesy of Sony.

More Great Gifts for the Sensory Kid

Looking back over my last post Gift Ideas for the Sensory Kid, I know I could’ve included even more gift ideas. So here I am – back with some more tips.

crayolacolormeasongCrayola Color Me a Song
I am pretty excited about this product, which I bought a couple of weeks ago to put under the Christmas tree. Crayola has come out with lots of new products lately, and not just crayons. This Color Me a Song contraption plays music as your kid scribbles, almost like free-form, colorful jazz. You can actually set the item to four different instruments and four different music types, including salsa and country. I haven’t completely figured out how it all works yet. But I do know that my son, who loves music and loves to color with REAL color (not just aquadoodle!) – will dig this. I think you may also be able to “record” your little one’s masterpieces, or at least play them back. Hopefully, it will also encourage my son to color within the lines of the Color Me A Song toy and not on the carpet or walls.

manddsandwichMelissa and Doug Sandwich Making Set
Many many kids with spectrum disorders also have feeding sensitivities. I’m not talking about the whole GFCF diet, but issues with texture and color. One of my son’s past therapists used to come by with a different Melissa and Doug fake food set, which she said was good for pretend play. The thought is that making eating and playing with food fun will make your child warm up to the idea of trying a green bean or something with sauce on it. This little set is really cute and comes with fake buns, lettuce, cheese, tomato, sandwich meat and a wooden knife to cut through the sandwich when you’ve finished making it. Of course, the knife is good for promoting fine motor skills. Yes, this is a good starter set of fake food and I like that it’s wooden and not plastic. If you want to get a little crazier, you can also get Melissa and Doug’s Sushi Set.

Sassafrass Animal Band
animalbandI know that some kids on the spectrum are sensitive to noise while others relish it. My son’s in the latter camp and loves music (as I noted in the description above of the Color Me a Song from Crayola). This little animal band was something his speech therapist would bring to play with a lot when we were just starting out on some early intervention tactics. There are wooden finger symbols,; a percussion instrument shaped like a fish that you strike with a small mallet (not quite a drum); maracas; a clapper; and animal bells. The cute little critter band is good because it helps with fine motor skills, coordination, learning rhythm, and learning songs and speech patterns to the sounds of self-made – and not battery-operated – music. I’m no therapist myself, but I bet that regular exposure to music using this band would also benefit kids for whom loud noises are difficult.

Edushape Sensory Balls
These are kind of a no-brainer as they’ve already got the word “sensory” in the title. These knobby, nubby balls are better than the regular rubber balls you get at the drug store. My son loves to play with his sensory balls – picking them up, rubbing them on his skin and on his head. His little brother also likes them as they’re easy to grasp.

Table and Chairs
tableandchairsFor kids who like to run around all the time, a table and chair set seems counter-intuitive. But here’s another thing I’ve learned from the special education professionals: it helps to have a dedicated spot where kids can sit and play quietly, either rolling out play dough, building block towers, coloring, or reading a book. At first, it’s really hard to get a sensory kid to want to stay still and sit down, and you may only get them to sit there for 15 minutes at a time. But that’s part of the process of learning how to stay on-task and concentrate. If you get a table and chair set, this table and chair set from Lipper is quite handsome. If you plan on making more messes, you may want to consider a Little Tikes plastic table and chair set. This Ready, Set, Art Table is a colorful option with an art caddy, but I prefer seats with backs. At any rate, getting your sensory toddler used to sitting at a table will definitely help transition him or her for the type of quiet play typical of preschool or kindergarten.

Gift Ideas for the Sensory Kid

Since my son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (aka “atypical autism”) and Sensory Processing Disorder, I’ve had a tough time figuring out suitable toys and games to get him. Sure, he’s happy with just about the same stuff any other kid is – blocks, mind-numbing, battery-powered toys, ride-on toys, etc. But I know that a lot of the things we have don’t always meet his needs for educational play.

There are lots of learning gadgets out there, like kid-targeted laptop computers. But my son will just “stim out” on his laptop for hours, memorizing answers to letter and number games and learning scripts from the computer itself. Dante’s brain works differently. Although he has some minor delays in speech and some motor skills, he has a photographic memory and can memorize entire scripts, the order in which songs are played, and entire books. It’s so bad that he even knows when I take a wrong/different turn if we’re going to a known destination.  (He’s only 3 years old and knows these suburban streets better than I do!)

So I wanted to write this blog post to make a list of a few of the toys that have either a) worked for us or b) seem like promising acquisitions. If you’re also shopping for a toddler with SID/SPD, PDD-NOS, or other spectrum symptoms, I hope this list will come in handy. I’ve also added a small list of stocking stuffer ideas at the bottom of the post. Please note, however, this disclaimer: I am not a doctor and can not assure that these toys will work for your kid.

smartcycleFisher Price Smart Cycle
This is one of the hot toys of the season, and it’s no surprise why. It combines two things that kids love: TV and exercise. The idea of the Smart Cycle is that kids learn from playing games that are controlled by the pedaling kid hooked up to the TV via interactive audio-video outputs. I don’t advocate just popping your kid in front of the TV for hours at a time, but sometimes moms need a break. I like the Smart Cycle for my sensory kid because he hasn’t mastered the gross motor skills of balance of pedaling, and this will allow him to learn those skills safely and warmly inside our home. Past occupational therapy experience has also taught me that my son is really revved up to learn during or shortly after being physically active. By the way, the “Extreme” version of this toy has “rumble action,” which may be even better for a sensory-seeking child.

Blooming Kids Learning Software
Last summer when we were on home leave, Dante made excellent progress with vocabulary and speech by using Blooming Kids. This software is geared toward kids on the spectrum and has, at this writing, 37 programs which teach kids new vocab, social cues, telling time, and tons of other things. The drawback to Blooming Kids is also its asset – nothing to unwrap on Christmas Day. But you can download the software onto your PC or Mac, install, and be ready to go with new software in just a few minutes. If your kid likes those toy laptops but is not really learning anything from them, you may enjoy Blooming Kids because you control what and how your kid learns. It is helpful to use this software on a computer that has a touch screen or you can get a wireless mouse, which also helps with fine motor skills.

urbanrebounderUrban Rebounder Trampoline
Yes, this is an item from the adult sporting goods shop, but the Urban Rebounder is an excellent exerciser for your tireless kid. Anytime Dante is feeling a bit out of sorts – running around in circles in the room, seeming bored, wanting to go to the park but it’s pouring rain – we tell him to go bounce on the trampoline. This particular model is helpful because it has the handle, allowing kids with balance problems to hold on a little tighter and the legs also fold down to make for easy storage – if you want to store it. My son will jump on this for 10-15-30-minutes at a time non-stop. But when he is done, he seems a bit more focused. I get in on the action by singing “Jumpy Jump Jump Jump Jump” from Yo Gabba Gabba while he bounces and we all have a good laugh.

leapfrog tagLeapfrog Tag Reading System
I’ve been checking out all sorts of kids learn-to-read devices and this one seems the most helpful and least annoying. My three year old loves books and has really learned to read – and spell! – a lot of words. But I also know that when I read to him, he doesn’t so much focus on the words as the cadence. A lot of children’s books are so sing-songy that it’s easy to memorize the sound of them and not the words within. For better or for worse, this Leapfrog wand takes the melodiousness out of reading – the friendly, computerized voice is monotone. But it does let you read word to word, holding memory for up to 10 books at a time. Leapfrog Tag currently works with 30 books (that cost extra but at about the same price as a regular storybook), and there are phonics books as well as ones that feature licensed characters (Dora, Star Wars, etc.) Kids can further interact with their books by going online and collecting rewards by playing games associated with the books.

As far as stocking stuffers, I have several suggestions: mini-massager (my son loves the extra vibration input); Moon Sand and Play Doh; motorized toothbrush; koosh ball; exercise ball (good for balancing and bouncing); Melissa & Doug Wooden Sandwich Making Set.

Have you seen other toys that you think would benefit a sensory kid? Please let me know by commenting below!