Swimming pools, parades, fireworks, and trips to the park are all sure signs of summertime. Although it’s the best time of year for many children and their families, summer events can also bring novel challenges to daily life due to increased sensory input including visual, auditory, tactile, and social stimuli. Sensory processing involves “perceiving, modulating, organizing, and interpreting these sensations to optimize occupational performance and participation” (Mori, 2015, p.1). Children with sensory processing differences often crave the same summertime experiences as other children, but they may have difficulty demonstrating emotional and behavioral control during periods of intense sensory input. Another factor to consider is the lack of exposure to sensory environments children have had due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without real-life exposure to these challenging sensory experiences, many children have not had to implement coping strategies to help improve sensory processing in over a year. Consider the following scenarios:
At the pool with Polly: Polly is a 5-year-old girl who is headed to the swimming pool for the first time this summer. She hasn’t been able to spend time with her friends in many months due to virtual school. Polly has sensory processing differences including tactile defensiveness. She tries on her new swimsuit and realizes there are two tags that are so itchy, she can’t think about anything else. Once she arrives at the pool, her mom makes her wear sunscreen which is one of her least favorite things to feel on her skin. Even the pool water feels different than she expected. Polly becomes so bothered by her itchy swimsuit, the uncomfortable sunscreen, and the funny pool water that she starts to cry and must go home without getting to swim with her friends.
Let’s Sensory Strategize: Polly’s body is so uncomfortable that she likely feels she has little control of this situation. Let’s give her some choices to help her feel more in control of her body and her day. Polly has to wear sunscreen, but we could ask Polly if she wants to wear spray sunscreen or sunscreen lotion. We could also give her the choice to put the sunscreen on herself or have an adult help her. Being able to put the sunscreen on herself may let her feel more in control and not be so worried about the unknown of how someone else will do it. Does she want those pesky tags to be cut off her swimsuit or does she have an old suit that she could wear? Being allowed to make choices gives Polly some say in the situation, helping give her the confidence and independence to make her day just a little easier.
Another strategy is to take small steps. This is a concept we discuss often with our kiddos at CI, especially when we are learning about tackling new challenges. Class Dojo is a great source to help learn about taking small steps to reach goals! For Polly, maybe her first step is to just play in the sprinkler or sit on the edge of the pool to talk to her friends instead of jumping right into the water.
Parade day with Peter: Peter is a 10-year-old boy who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He experiences sensory processing differences, especially with auditory input. Loud noises, sudden shrill sounds, and any unexpected noise tends to frighten Peter. He has several younger siblings who plan to go to the parade in town. Because he would otherwise be at home alone, he decides to go with. However, Peter realizes parades are tough because of the sirens, cheering crowds, and loudspeakers. Peter didn’t remember to bring any tools like headphones to help manage loud sounds, so he ends up being crabby throughout the entire parade.
Let’s Sensory Strategize: Peter had to make a rushed decision to leave the house and since he was feeling nervous, he forgot to grab his headphones. This is a perfect example of how it could be helpful to have a summer sensory kit packed and in an easily accessible place in the house. Some helpful items may include noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, chewing gum or a Chewy Necklace, a water bottle with a straw, and fidgets. Fun and Function has some great sensory tools for all ages if you are looking to stock up your sensory kit! For kids who have never experienced a parade it can be very helpful to foreshadow with your child. Talking about what they can expect and reminding them what tools they can use if they start to feel overwhelmed is a great way to help build a sense of confidence and control. Another great way to foreshadow these annual festivities is to read books about them. This can be a fun and low pressure way to talk about sensory experiences and proactively plan with your kiddo what tools you want to bring along for the event!
Fritz goes to 4th of July Fireworks: Fritz is 4 years old and is attending his first fireworks show. He has never received any therapeutic services for sensory processing, but his mom and dad know he doesn’t love loud, unexpected sounds like the vacuum or hair dryer. When the fireworks start, Fritz begins to scream and cover his head with a blanket. The family must leave the show because he was unable to recover.
Let’s Sensory Strategize: First, let’s remember that it is important to be flexible about our summer expectations. Summer plans often change, and that is okay. If we are flexible with what we are expecting from the firework experience, then we can focus on noticing the “red flag” behaviors. Fritz’s parents know that when he first starts to cover his ears or twirl his hair, he is beginning to feel uncomfortable. They can notice the “red flags” and decide to be flexible and pack up early, before Fritz is unable to recover. Just like Polly at the Pool, Fritz can take small steps toward watching the fireworks. Maybe this year the plan could be to watch fireworks from a farther distance or in the car to help block out some of those loud sounds. Perhaps his family can be flexible about only watching 2 minutes of the show this time or making a plan to leave before the finale.
Whether you are headed to the beach, a museum, or a festival, the tools listed above can help prepare children for all their favorite activities this summer. Be sure your kiddos know what to expect, read their cues to prevent complete loss of control, and be flexible with your expectations while they get back into the routines of daily life as COVID-19 restrictions lessen. With the right tools, your child can have a sunny and sensory-ful summer.
Written By: Christin Wasemiller, MS, OTR/L & Taylor Wienkes, OTD, OTR/L
Mori, A. B. (2015). Addressing Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing Disorders Across the Lifespan: The Role of Occupational Therapy. American Occupational Therapy Association.