By Katie Hurley, LCSW
For many kids, summer vacation promises endless days out in the sun, plans made on the fly, and staying up just a little bit later to enjoy the sunset. For kids with sensory challenges, on the other hand, the summer months can pose a significant challenge. Gone are the routines, schedules, and, in some cases, carefully created coping skills. The whirlwind nature of summer can result in sensory overload in a variety of ways.
One of the difficult parts of managing sensory issues is that sensory surprises seem to be around every corner. A melting ice cream cone is funny to one child, but overwhelming to next. Sandy feet are an annoyance to some kids, but downright aggravating to others. A large evening party featuring neon glow sticks might sound like a lot of fun, but for a child who is triggered by loud noises and bright lights, this can quickly result in sensory overload.
With some preparation and practice, however, parents can help kids with sensory processing issues enjoy the summer months.
Understand your child’s specific needs.
Sensory processing issues differ from child to child. There’s no specific checklist that applies to every single child because no two kids are exactly the same. To that end, it helps to understand the individual needs of your child and what you can do to help your child cope.
Consider these potential summer triggers:
- Going barefoot: Running around free from tight shoes might be liberating for some kids, but the feel of gritty sand, prickly grass or hot pavement might upset others. Plan: Buy extra comfortable shoes and water shoes that can get wet, sandy and messy this summer so your child can enjoy the great outdoors without the stress of the sensory input.
- Sunscreen: Applying sunscreen can be a challenge for kids who don’t like to be touched and because it tends to be sticky and overly scented. Plan: Try sunscreen wipes or a lotion with sunscreen in it (these don’t always have the same overwhelming fragrance). It can help to talk your kids through the sunscreen application step-by-step and teach older kids to apply sunscreen independently. Conduct an experiment to see how sunscreen works to help your kids understand its importance.
- Beach days: Hot sand, wet sand and sand that just won’t come off no matter how many times you wash your feet can feel intolerable for a child with sensory issues. Plan: Let your child wear sneakers or closed toe water shoes to the beach. Bring extra-large blankets or sheets to use as beach blankets. Bring more than one change of clothes, including long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to wear over a bathing suit while playing.
- Pool days: Swimming in a pool can be soothing for some kids with sensory issues, but it can also be triggering. The smell of chlorine is strong, the sounds echoing through water can be loud and pools can become crowded. Plan: Call ahead to find out the low-traffic swim times. Consider ear plugs, nose plugs and goggles to reduce sensory input while swimming.
- Parties: Summer parties can be a lot of fun, but they can also be loud, overstimulating and unpredictable. Plan: Set time limits. Prepare your child in advance. Bring a coping kit with soothing items in case the sensory input is too overwhelming. Work out your exit strategy in advance.
Make a schedule.
The loss of a predictable daily routine can be a significant source of stress for kids with sensory processing issues. Unexpected events can be upsetting and routine brings comfort. Use a large whiteboard to outline your daily and weekly schedule. This helps your kids know what to expect. If you choose to enroll your child in camps or summer programs, look for programs that follow a specific daily schedule.
Empower your child to help update the calendar with any changes or upcoming events. This helps your child prepare for parties and new activities ahead of time.
Prepare for transitions.
Change and trying new things can be difficult for any child, but for a child with sensory issues there’s an added layer of stress and uncertainty. The more prepared your child is, the less likely he or she is to be overwhelmed or experience a meltdown. Four ways to prepare are:
- Provide plenty of warnings about transitions and changes to the overall plan.
- Talk it out. Children with sensory issues crave specifics.
- Take a test run. If your child is trying a new camp, for example, ask about a visiting day or just do a test run of preparing for the day, driving to the location, finding the bathrooms and other important areas, and learning about the overall environment.
- Pack a sensory to-go kit. Kids with sensory issues need comfort kits on the go. Consider ear muffs, noise reduction headphones, fidget toys, sunglasses, chewing gum, a weighted lap pad or small weighted blanket, and other comfort items.
Do a sensory analysis ahead of time.
It’s a difficult to problem solve when you’re not sure what the problem is. A lot of fun summer activities are packed with sensory triggers. It helps to visit camps, activities or other destinations in advance to explore potential triggers and plan ahead. If you’re taking a trip, research the potential pitfalls in an effort to problem solve before you even leave the house.
While you can’t avoid every summer sensory trigger (Bugs! Sand! Fireworks!), you can plan ahead to help prepare your child, find coping tools that work on the go and reduce overwhelming and overstimulating events while enjoying the summer months as a family.