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.
1. Give Lots of Warning:
Unexpected transitions and novel sensory environments can turn going out into a meltdown minefield for kids with sensory processing issues. 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.
2. Make a Schedule:
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.
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.
- 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.
3. Make Space for Sensory Time-outs:
Having a safe space designated where a kid can go if they are having a hard time is important. When you’re preparing for an activity, try making this part of the plan.
- 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 child is ready to try scheduling their own breaks, agree on a safe place for them to go where they 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.
4. 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, anything that helps to calm and reorganize your 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.
5. Have an Exit Strategy:
Sometimes, no matter how many strategies you have in place, things just become too overwhelming for kids with sensory issues. When that happens it is time to go. Don’t wait until your child is on the brink of a meltdown. 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.
- Go means go. If you can see that your child is reaching their breaking point, don’t wait to leave. Remember, the goal is to help your child recognize their sensory limits and learn to gradually expand them. Pushing your child past their breaking point might lead to meltdowns and make them 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.
6. 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.