The long-awaited summer school holidays are here, and with that the Festive Season. It is traditionally a time to spend with family and to make new memories. It is a time for fun in the sun, family gatherings and parties, shopping till you drop, and loads of festive food and activities. However, it is also a time of great anxiety and stress for people with low sensory thresholds, especially children. While everyone else is getting excited about the people you will see and do things with, anybody with low sensory thresholds is ready to bolt in the opposite direction.
The hypersensitive child can become overwhelmed by all the sensory input from the lights, decorations, music, food and crowded shopping centres. Being away from home interferes with the carefully structured and routine life one has, and going to new places and meeting new people bring about changes that make the child with low sensory thresholds anxious.
Here are some useful tips to help prevent overload and meltdowns:
- Have a clear understanding of the child’s sensory needs and dislikes. Take note of behaviour while on the beach, at family gatherings and when eating different foods. Also go back and recall the past events where sensory overload happened.
- No new clothes. Pack clothes that your child has worn and approved. New clothes must be tried and tested before you even leave home.
- Holidays mean no school or homework, and little to no work commitments for most of us, and thus there goes the need for routine. This could be cataclysmic for the child with low thresholds. The hypersensitive child needs routine and structure during the holiday season too. Having a schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
- Keep to your child’s sleep routine. Prepare your child to the fact that he will be sleeping in another bed. If you have to, pack his linen and his pillow in.
- Be prepared to deal with the unexpected. Summer is generally a great time to try new things. Some of these new experiences can however be overwhelming for the child with low thresholds. Give them as much warning as possible beforehand whenever there are changes to the planned schedule.
- Discuss events or activities that could be overwhelming – break it down and help the child do a sensory breakdown of the activity.
- Let the child try a new activity in a safe and contained environment. Many outdoor activities have intense multi-sensory input, and the child will be less likely to explore their boundaries. For example, if you are going to the beach, fill a tray with sand and shells, and encourage the child to play with it. This way, the child has a way to get used to a tactile sensation before he even gets to the sandy and wet beach.
- Allow your child to wear water shoes when walking on the sand and grass – it will decrease the tactile input and it will also protect those sensitive feet from the hot sand too.
- Apply sunscreen before you leave the house. This will allow it to dry, therefore reducing the amount of sand that will stick to the body
- Give your child sunglasses and a hat to protect his eyes from the intense and bright sunlight.
- Have an umbrella or tent to create shade and to protect from the wind and bugs.
- Have earplugs or earphones handy for when it gets too noisy. This will help decrease the intensity of the multisensory input.
- Have wet wipes or hand sanitizer on hand.
- Maintain your child’s diet and keep your child hydrated. Food is fuel for our bodies and our brains. Too much junk food and holiday foods can throw our bodies into disarray.
- Consider meal options when you are away from home. You know what your child’s food likes and dislikes are, and if need be, take his favourite food with him to dinner. Prep your family and friends in advance, and do not force your child to eat something that he does not like.
- Have an escape plan – identify a room or have a small tent that your child can retreat to when it all gets too much. Have his sensory tool kit (e.g. fidgets, chewies, plush toy, earphones, water bottle, book to read) nearby, so that he can regulate with the things that bring most comfort. Have someone else in your family that can help you make sure that the safe place is ready for when it is needed.
- Avoid shopping trips with your child. Shopping malls are overwhelming and full of stressed out people, different sounds, smells and long queues – the perfect place for a sensory meltdown.
- Add sensory friendly things to do – visit the museum, go to the aquarium or go watch a movie.
At the end of the day, remember to have fun. Holidays are there to make new memories and to spend quality time with our loved ones. Be flexible – looking out for and taking care of our loved ones are important, so it’s okay not to do that scheduled activity if one of us is not in a good sensory space.
Annabella Sequeira is a Specialist Sensory Intelligence® Facilitator for Parents and Teachers.
She holds a BSc (Occupational Therapy) degree from the University of Cape Town, backed by 22 years’ experience in both the public and private sector. She has extensive practical experience in the area of Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in children and is passionate about empowering others to improve functionality and quality of life.