October 15, 2016/in Articles by Empowered Kids
Sensory processing refers to how our central nervous system receives and responds to sensory input, which includes touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.
Each change of season brings with it a range of sensory input which can affect children in different ways. For some children, the transition to summer can be difficult, and this can lead to a series of challenging behaviors which can impact on their social engagement during the holiday season. With a little preparation and planning, we can support our children to have a sensory safe summer, and have a positive and fun experience during these warmer months.
As each child is unique, it is worth making note of your child’s sensory needs to be able to plan ahead. As not all sen-sory input can be controlled (for example an unexpected summer downpour resulting in soaking wet clothes and hair), it is also worthwhile trialing a range of calming strategies that can be easily accessible (perhaps squeezing a piece of blue tac or chewing some gum) that can be used to help a child self regulate when exposed to a particularly challenging situation.
Some common sensitivities to be aware of in summer include:
Children can be very sensitive to the sun and can find it hard to regulate their temperature appropriately. These chil-dren can also miss the internal cue that indicates ‘thirst’, therefore are prone to dehydration. In addition to the high-er temperatures, the summer months can also bring increased humidity and additional brightness/glare, which can make a child feel very hot, sweaty, irritable and lethargic. Prevention is the key so keeping children cool, in the shade and well hydrated is a good place to start.
Tip: Support a child’s fluid intake by placing evenly spaced marks on a drink bottle to indicate levels that correspond with the time of day. For example, drink to the first line by morning tea, the second line by lunch etc. It is also important to be mindful of their clothing both during the day and overnight, with breathable, light fabrics being the most suitable, and encourage your child to wear a pair of high quality sunglasses with a neoprene strap and a wide brimmed hat or cap to reduce the glare. Ensure that the car windows have a suitable window shade to reduce sensory overload when your child is seated in the car.
Sunscreen is a necessary addition to any beach bag, however for some children, it is a part of the day that they would prefer to avoid. Try an unscented brand that does not leave a greasy residue on the skin and perhaps a spray.
Tip: Deep pressure can be calming and organizing for children so before applying sunscreen you could try firm squeezes to the arms and legs, squishes all over their body with a cushion or firmly rolling a ball over their body, arms and legs. Addi-tionally you could apply sunscreen using firm, even strokes and ensure that it is applied before any exposure to sand (consider applying before leaving the house.)
Summer play often consists of sand and water, both of which can be challenging environments for children with sen-sory processing difficulties to play in. They may become avoidant and display some challenging behavior. A day at the beach or at a waterpark may seem like a lovely family day out but to some children, this can be a day filled with unpredictable and unfavorable sensory surprises. It is worthwhile making a note of when your child has a meltdown and consider what may be causing sensory overload. It can be something as seemingly insignificant as the stickiness of a melting ice-block on their fingers, the sound of the seagulls, drops of water on their skin or the smell of a particu-lar flower that only blooms in summer.
Tip: Have a sensory area at home, such as a water table and a sand pit with hidden shells or colorful stones to help de-sensitize your child in a fun, safe, controlled environment.
Be a Detective:
We often help parents to identify whether a child’s challenging behavior and responses is behavioral or whether there is a sensory component triggering the behavior. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell however it is important to iden-tify. It can be helpful to keep a journal of the daily routine and make a special note of any unusual or challenging be-haviors your child displays. Include brief details about what happened before the event, during, and after. Keep the journal over a week or two and see if you notice a pattern. If you’re unsure or need specific strategies for your child, it is best to contact an occupational therapist who is specialized in assessing sensory processing challenges.