One of the challenges of raising kids with sensory processing issues is that outings, even ones that promise a lot of fun, can easily turn into nightmares if kids find themselves in surprising or overwhelming situations.
A child who is oversensitive to stimulation can find an ordinary supermarket or restaurant unbearable because of noise, bright lighting, or crowds. But even an excursion that’s kid friendly—a trip to the ice cream store—can induce a meltdown if the child hasn’t had time to adjust to the idea.
That’s why planning and preparation are key to going places with sensory-challenged kids. Here are some tips (tested by experts and moms!) to help you get going and allow everyone to have a good time.
Give lots of warning
Unexpected transitions and novel sensory environments can turn going out into a meltdown minefield for kids with sensory processing issues.
Why are these kids so easily upset by changes in routine? Lindsey Biel, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing challenges, explains that kids who are not getting optimal and reliable information from their senses often feel uncomfortable and out of control. Predictability allows them to feel more secure. Changes in routine threaten that sense of security, and can trigger meltdowns.
To make outings easier, start by creating a clear, reliable schedule, so everyone knows what to expect and when.
Advance warning gives kids a structure they can rely on and get comfortable with. It also allows ample time for you to work together to plan sensory friendly approaches to new activities.
“It really helps to give information way in advance about where we’re going and what’s going to happen when we get there,” says Erin, a mom whose blog Putting Socks On Chickens focuses on her experience raising a son with sensory processing issues. “For a long time, I’d let him know what to expect from the day each morning, but it just wasn’t enough warning for him.”
Making and following a monthly schedule has made a big difference in her son’s behavior, she says. “Now we use the schedule as a way of giving him as much notice as possible, so everyone is better prepared and outings go much more smoothly.”
Some schedule tips:
- Let kids have input. When you’re making the schedule, ask your child to participate. Contributing to the process will help him remember what’s on the schedule and he may even have ideas of his own!
- Share the schedule. Going over it often helps remind your child of what’s coming and when. “We keep it written down where my son can see it,” says Erin. Seeing the day laid out is a huge help. “He’ll look at the schedule and say, ‘Okay, so we have this birthday party, but when it’s over and we get home I have free time.” This way, says Erin, activities that used to cause meltdowns have become things he can enjoy.
- Stick to the schedule. Of course unexpected things come up sometimes, but doing your best to stay on track will help kids know they can rely on the schedule and feel confident in knowing what to expect.
Make space for sensory time-outs
Having a safe space designated where a kid can go if she is having a hard time is important. When you’re preparing for an activity, try making this part of the plan.
“Often a child who’s easily over-stimulated will do fine if they can walk away for a little bit every half hour or so,” says Biel, whose most recent book is Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work with Kids & Teens. Depending on their age and level of sensory awareness, kids may need to take different approaches to time-outs.
- Kids who are more self-aware can initiate these breaks on their own. This can be a great way to help them build self-regulating skills. If your daughter is ready to try scheduling her own breaks, agree on a safe place for her to go where she can still be seen by the grown-up in charge. For example, taking a time out on the couch is okay, but leaving the yard or getting in the car without an adult is not.
- Kids who are less able to self-regulate might need some parental intervention. If you notice your child starting to become overwhelmed, try suggesting a walk or taking a 10-minute break in the air conditioned car.
Make a go-bag
Filling a backpack with pre-established things that are calming and helpful gives children easy access to tools that help them feel more at ease. Sensory bags don’t need to be complicated, says Biel, who recommends carrying “anything that helps to calm and reorganize the child.” Making a go-bag can be a fun activity to do together and gives your child more control over his sensory experience when he’s on the go. Some go-bag ideas include:
- Noise-cancelling earmuffs
- Good-quality sunglasses
- A wide-brimmed hat
- Headphones and an MP3 player with his favorite music or games.
- Fidget toys like Silly Putty, a worry stone, or anything else that helps him feel relaxed.
- His favorite stuffed animal or toy
- Chewing gum
- A weighted blanket or lap-pad
- Bottled water and healthy snacks to help him stay hydrated and avoid hunger crashes during long days.
To make it easy for your child to access his go-bag, try putting everything in a backpack or fanny pack so he can comfortably carry it with him.
Have an exit strategy
Sometimes, no matter how many strategies you have in place, things just become to overwhelming for kids with sensory issues. When that happens it’s time to go.”Don’t wait until he’s on the brink of a meltdown,” says Biel. “Have a reasonable exit strategy in place and be ready to use it if the time comes.”
- Set up a signal. Make it something simple and subtle, like a wave. “Giving him a graceful way to let you know he’s had enough lets him have some control over things, which lets you both relax a little,” says Biel.
- Go means go. If you can see that your child is reaching his breaking point, don’t wait to leave. Remember, the goal is to help him recognize his sensory limits and learn to gradually expand them. Pushing him past his breaking point might lead to meltdowns and make him feel more anxious about your next outing, not less.
If you have two kids with different needs, remember to consider each child. One child may be fine at a party for hours but another may need to leave after one. Whenever possible, do your best to set something up in advance so both kids can have a positive experience.
- Ask another parent if she would be willing to drive one of your children home so that you are free to leave if it becomes necessary.
- If there’s no way to organize an alternative means of transportation, talk to both kids beforehand and agree on a leaving time. That way everyone will be on the same page.
Look for sensory-friendly activities
Once you’ve settled on strategies that work for you and your child, you can start adding more fun activities to the schedule. An increasing number of museums, theme parks, movie theaters, and other institutions offer sensory-friendly events and shows. These often feature reduced noise levels, lower light, and no-applause rules. If you’re considering taking your child to the movies or a show, try doing an Internet search for sensory smart events in your area.