In the last post, we explored strategies to support your child on vacation if he or she is a sensory seeker, but what if your child is more of a sensory avoider. Some children have sensitive nervous systems that are easily overwhelmed. Depending on the child, they may demonstrate sensory defensiveness and/or poor sensory regulation/modulation. As a result, careful planning is needed to make a vacation successful.
1. Establish familiar routines. Children with sensory defensiveness benefit from predictability and
familiarity. Establish a routine to the days. In thinking about the day’s
activities, less is typically better for this child. If you are using
sensory supports (deep pressure protocol, sensory diet, therapeutic
listening, etc,) continue these and ask your child’s occupational
therapist if any adjustments should be made to the program you are
currently implementing. Pack favorite clothes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste. Remember sunglasses and hat if your child is sensitive to the sun.
2. Don’t push interactions with relatives. For many children, visiting is overwhelming people they don’t know very well: people wanting to hug and kiss them or even pick them up; people that may be loud; houses that may smell funny; food that is different from what they are used to, etc. Let your relatives know what works for you child: let them initiate any physical interaction; establish a safe, quiet place if they need it; bring familiar items to make sleeping (pillow, blanket), play, and eating comfortable.
3. Plan for down times. Remember that even when your child is
having a good time, it can still be draining on their nervous systems
and require some quiet time to recoup. If touring a busy city, find a
quiet place to eat, go back to the hotel room or play in a park for awhile. Giving a sensitive
child time to regroup can help them manage themselves better and reduce/prevent meltdowns. Years ago when I took my seven
year old son to Disney World, we went to the park when it opened and
stayed until lunch time. Then we went back to the hotel and pool for
the afternoon, returning to the park in late afternoon, making for a much more relaxing experience.
4. Honor your child’s perceptions. While it can be frustrating to parents, when children react negatively to experiences that are generally perceived as being fun, it is important to recognize that their reacts are based on how their nervous system perceives the experience. Listen to them and modify your plans. While it is fine to expose your child to new experiences and gently encourage their participation, be careful not to force your child to engage in an activity that for them is at best uncomfortable and at worse triggers a fight/flight/fright/freeze response. For some children, the beach is overwhelming: the sand; splashing, cold, salty water; hot sun; lots of people. For some children, movement is frightening: going on rides, esp. roller coasters is the last thing they want to do.
Vacationing with your child who has a sensory processing disorder can be challenging, but with careful planning and a little accommodation, the vacation can be a wonderful experience for the entire family.