According to The STAR Institute of Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), one of the top 5 differences between families with or without a child facing an SPD is "Decreased frequency of taking a child with SPD to visit friends or family, to eat in a restaurant, (or) to attend a community gathering." ("Latest Research Findings," 2018). Boy can I relate to that! My now college-aged daughter has sensory defensiveness (auditory, tactile, and oral) that was really extreme when she was a toddler and preschooler. These sensory differences always made it extremely uncomfortable for her, as well as challenging for us as a family, to take her anywhere outside of our home. Going out to eat, to family gatherings, the grocery store, or on family vacations, etc. – required strategic planning and coordination with other family members – as well as the use of some "life-saving" sensory tools and interventions.
Here are 8 strategies and tools that were helpful and worked well for our family / my daughter:
1) Keep outings short and sweet. When you are going to take your child along on a shopping trip (such as a quick trip to the grocery store), create a specific shopping list, go during off hours, and let your child take their favorite stuffed animal or blankie along (in addition to having her/him wear sensory earmuffs, comfy clothing, and a weighted or pressure vest if proprioceptive or weighted input is helpful). When our daughter was old enough to help, we would take laminated picture cards of food from my grocery list and would give her a single card in each aisle (i.e.: a picture of bananas in the produce section) so she could help me find the item. This provided a focus and kept her hands busy during what we'd always ensure was a quick trip in and out. The same goes for trips to the playground or school events for siblings. Go during off-hours if possible and/or plan to only go for a portion of the event if that is what's needed to ensure the child will be able to tolerate the outing (i.e.: just go for the songs your child's class will be singing for the spring music program). Try to sit in the back of the room / audience whenever possible so you can arrive late, and step out or leave early if necessary.
2) Honor your child's differences and help others understand that the sensory differences he/she experiences ARE a real thing. If your child is saying their clothes, or certain foods and drinks "hurt" them – it does! The way the child's brain interprets and experiences that sensory input IS indeed painful for them. It's important for others to understand this. It's also crucial to teach people the difference between sensory and behavior responses; tantrums vs. sensory meltdowns (information on this topic is coming soon). Sometimes, sharing a good book with family or friends that was written by an expert in the field can be more helpful than all the explaining in the world. Three of our favorite resources on sensory processing disorders are: Sensational Kids, The Out of Sync Child, or Raising a Sensory Smart Child.
3) If both parents will be going to an event or place that you know may be difficult for your child (or another adult is coming along), consider driving 2 cars so someone can leave early and take the child home if needed. This was a huge one in our family when our daughter was a toddler/preschooler that allowed us to continually keep trying and not give up on taking her places. We always took 2 cars to restaurants, family gatherings, birthday parties, and weekend camping trips, etc. We didn't take our daughter to extremely high stimulation places that we knew she wouldn't be able to tolerate, like children's arcades or amusement parks.
4) When eating out, strategically choose "quick service" restaurants where you go thru the line and pick out your food – or where you typically have your food in 10 minutes or less. If both my husband and I were there, one of us would scope out a strategic place to sit right away that was away from other patrons, and would take our sensory child to the table right away (and the other one of us would go thru the line). Or, one of us would leave 10 minutes earlier than the other and go order the food – and we'd try to time things so the other would arrive with our sensory child just as the food was arriving. If tactile defensiveness is a problem, seat the child so no one can accidentally brush against or into her or him. It may also be helpful to seat the child so they are facing the wall or a window vs. facing all the other patrons.
5) If your child is sensitive to sounds and noise (auditory defensiveness) – consider having him/her wear sensory earmuffs or soft earplugs (or even headphones with music if they are older) when you go out. These can be a lifesaver when it comes to public bathrooms (especially those with self-flushing toilets), airports, noisy waiting rooms, restaurants, and/or long rides in the car when there are other kids or a crying baby). Weighted vests, deep pressure vests, and compression belts can be very calming and soothing to a child who has tactile defensiveness. If you child has tactile defensiveness, let him/her select and wear clothing that is comfortable and feels good to them, regardless of whether or not it fits the occasion. Let the child choose and take along a backpack or fanny pack filled with some of their favorite fidgets, a water bottle, favorite stuffed animal, etc. Remember that the goal is successfully including your sensory-challenged child in family outings and events – and preventing sensory meltdowns.
6) Heavy work activities like jumping, running, lifting, pushing, pulling, or animal walks can be very calming for a child who has SPD. Do a few of these things right before going to a restaurant or grandma's house. If your child responds well to brushing, brush them with their favorite sensory brush or have them brush themself right before you go.
7) Incorporate short sensory break(s) as needed. In our case, it was typically every 20 or 30 minutes. Take your child out and spend 5 or 10 minutes in a quieter, low stimulation setting in another room away from everyone else or go outside. These breaks allow the child's nervous system to "reset." If your child seeks or responds well to movement input, take along a wiggle seat, have them jump up and down (or do some kind of activity that inverts their head), or go outside for a short swinging break, etc.
8) Prepare the child about the plan for the day; predictability and letting them know what's coming up next makes children feel more safe and secure. Changes in daily schedules or routines are especially difficult for children who have SPD. Let the child know where you are going, what's going to happen when you get to your destination, and when possible, how long you'll be there / what time you'll be leaving. Use pictures or a visual schedule if needed. Drawing simple pictures on a dry erase board can be a easy and effective tool. For children who are old enough to understand, consider creating a unspoken signal the child can use if she / he needs a break or needs to leave.
– Therapy Shoppe Mom OT, March 22, 2018
Latest research findings. (2018, March 22). Retrieved from: spdstar.org/basic/latest-research-findings#f9
©2018 Therapy Shoppe® Incorporated. All rights reserved.