Summer and Sensory Processing Issues
How to help kids stay comfortable in what can be overstimulating outdoor activities
For many kids, summer vacation holds the promise of months of school-free fun. But for children with sensory processing issues, summer can be a challenging time.
From the sand on the beach to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, the season is full of exciting but potentially difficult experiences. An unfamiliar playground, a visit to an amusement park, a messy ice cream cone: all involve sensory surprises that can be overwhelming or upsetting if a child is unusually sensitive to light, noise, and tactile sensations. But with some preparation and planning parents can help kids with sensory issues get the most out of summertime.
Study your child’s specific needs
The first step to helping a child with sensory processing issues enjoy summertime is having a strong understanding her specific needs. Sensory processing issues come in many shapes and sizes, and no two kids are exactly the same. An activity like going to the beach might be a huge treat for one child and miserable for another, depending on their individual sensitivities.
“For children with tactile hypersensitivity something like going to the beach can be a nightmare,” says Lindsey Biel, an occupational therapist and author of Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work with Kids & Teens. “They can’t stand the way the sun feels on their skin, or the sand on their feet.”
The best way to avoid a meltdown at the beach is to tune into what your child’s behavior tells you. Did she refuse to go in the water at the waterpark last summer? Does she have trouble with sticky food like cotton candy? Does she run away when you try to put sunscreen on her? Looking back at what kinds of activities your child has enjoyed—and which have lead to meltdowns—is a great way to get a sense of what she’ll enjoy in the future, and what tools you can use to help potentially difficult activities become less stressful.
Make a schedule—and stick to it
When the school year ends, saying goodbye to homework is often cause for celebration, but for kids with sensory issues the loss of an orderly schedule can spell disaster.
“One of the difficult things that happens during summer is the loss of structure,” says Biel. “Kids with sensory issues thrive when there’s a predictable schedule and they can more or less tell what’s going to happen each day. When that’s gone the day becomes more stressful, not less.”
Unexpected events are jarring and disruptive for kids with sensory issues who are more sensitive to changes in environment or activity. Routine helps them feel comfortable and better prepared to handle what’s coming their way.
- Consider enrolling kids in activities that help them maintain a schedule. Swimming, art, or other sensory-friendly classes or day camps can mimic the structure of school in a fun way.
- Work with your child to make a calendar of upcoming events. Use stickers or fun doodles to represent activities. A dolphin sticker might represent a day at the beach or a picture of roller skates could mean a visit to the park.
- Once you’ve made a schedule, try hard to stick with it. Disorder is very confusing for kids with sensory issues, so consistency is key.
Avoid surprises by thinking ahead
Summer is a great time to try new things but some experiences can be overwhelming for kids with sensory issues. When it comes to going out, careful planning can mean the difference between a happy summer day and a total meltdown. The more prepared they are the less likely they are to be overwhelmed, which means everyone will have a better time.
- Focus on transitions. “Kids with sensory processing issues often struggle with transitions,” says Dr. Matthew Rouse, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “So it’s very important to give them plenty of warning when transitioning from one activity to another.”
- Talk it out. “Prepare kids for potentially overwhelming activities by talking about what the experience will be like in advance,” says Dr. Rouse. “Knowing what’s going to happen takes a lot of the anxiety out of trying new things.”
- Break it down. “Take any situation that’s potentially problematic and do a sensory analysis of it,” says Biel. If taking your kid to the park overwhelms him, think about what sensory triggers might be behind his reaction. Breaking the experience down to its sensory components—the light touch of long grass, the bugs, the noise—can help you and your child figure out how to manage the more difficult parts of the experience before you arrive.
- Try a test run. “Once you know your child’s sensory triggers you can begin working to help them manage their sensory arousal,” explains Dr. Rouse. A lot of popular summer activities, especially those that take place outside, are full of intense multi-sensory stimulation. Kids may need to back up and explore the sensory experiences in a less stimulating environment. A great way to do this is to ‘test’ different components of the sensory experience in a non-stressful setting. “Making a sensory bin for kids to play with at home lets them get used to the different sensory experiences one at a time so they don’t get overloaded,” says Biel. “Turning desensitizing activities into play also helps kids associate difficult textures with fun.”Sensory bins are easy to make. For example, if you’re heading to the beach try filling a tray with sand and
shells at home. This way he’ll have the chance to get used to the tactile experience long before you hit the shore. Another way to prepare for activities ahead of time is to ‘practice’ them at home. For example if you’re thinking of taking a hike, try doing a short test run in the park or the yard. This way, kids can get a preview of the sensations—how the grass brushes their legs, or how their backpack feels when they carry it for a long time, in a safe, comfortable space.
- Make a sensory go-kit. “Kids should have their own toolbox of things that help them to feel good,” says Biel. Put together a backpack of objects that provide sensory relief so kids can carry them even when parents aren’t present. “Try including earmuffs, fidget toys, chewing gum or a weighted lap pad,” suggests Biel. “Anything that kids can use to keep themselves regulated during new or difficult activities.”
Summer tools to know
The right tools and clothes can reduce sensory overload and help kids have a good time.
- Sunglasses: “Make sure the child has really high quality sunglasses,” says Biel, “A lot of kids with sensory issues are very sensitive to bright light.” A neoprene strap to help them stay on can be helpful.
- Sun-protective hats: For kids who are very sensitive to sun try a soft, comfortable wide-brimmed hat.
- Good bug spray: When it comes to mosquitos and ticks, comfort and safety are important. Many bug sprays are very effective but kids might resist them because they feel sticky or are strong-smelling. Lightweight long pants and long sleeves can be equally effective. You can also try spraying his clothing and hair rather than applying it directly to bare skin.
- Sunscreen: If you’re spending time outside, sunscreen can be an essential. There are many different kinds, so
investigate which works best for your child. Some are less greasy or come unscented or in spray versions. When applying sunscreen use massaging, even strokes. “Deep pressure is calming and organizing for kids.” says Biel. “Instead of using light touch to apply sunblock, use that as an opportunity for a massage. It can be a good way
to help desensitize a child before going out.
- The right bathing suit: “There are different bathing suits that have different sensory qualities to them,” says Biel. “A lot of kids can’t stand an elastic waistband, or the light touch of ruffles.” Finding a sensory-friendly suit will make going to the pool and other swimming activities much more fun for kids.
- Ear protection: Bring noise-cancelling earmuffs. Reducing noise takes intensity out of multisensory experiences. This is especially helpful for kids who are very sensitive to sound, but can be a great way for any child to take a step back and regroup.
- Portable shelter: Beaches and parks can be fun but it’s important for kids to have a retreat. An umbrella or beach cabana provides protection from the sun and gives kids a safe space to take a break during outdoor activities.
- Protective shoes: If walking on grass or sand is intensely uncomfortable, don’t push kids to go barefoot. Bring along a pair of aqua socks or other comfortable shoes that work well in outdoor conditions.
- Seek out sensory-friendly events: Many museums, movie theaters, and shows including circuses and major musicals offer summer events geared towards kids with sensory processing issues. To get a sense of what’s available, try doing an Internet search for sensory-friendly activities in your area.
Finally, remember that the goal is to help kids have a great summer. Focus on having fun, learning new skills, and doing what’s best for your kids and yourself.