Supporting Your Child’s Sensory Needs This Summer

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing is “one’s ability to register and organize sensory input, from both internal (within one’s body) and external (environmental) stimuli, in order to effectively participate and engage in daily activities.” (Parenting OC) This can result in sensory seeking behaviors, withdrawal, self-harm, or aggression. There are four types of sensory needs; seeking, low registration, avoiding, and varied. Children who engage in seeking behaviors crave sensory input through touch, smell, or taste. Children who engage in low registration tend to lay around and appear lazy. Children who avoide are more sensitive to environmental factors such as lights, smells, textures, or sounds. Lastly, varied behaviors means a child who seeks a variety of the other three types of sensory needs.

“Children with sensory-processing challenges can demonstrate difficulties engaging in daily and age-appropriate activities that require integration of sensory input from the different sensory systems such as touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, as well as from internal systems such as the vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems.” (Parenting OC) This can make outdoor and social summer activities challenging. Going to the beach, eating a messy ice cream cone, watching fireworks, or participating in summer activities children tend to enjoy may instead feel like sensory overload. Is this starting to sound like your child? If so, your child may have difficulty with sensory processing. Child Inspired has a few recommendations to help your kiddo with sensory challenges make the most out of their summer! 

How can I prepare my child?

Keep in mind that you can not avoid every sensory trigger this summer (etc., bugs), but you can help prepare your child by finding coping strategies and ways to make activities less stimulating to enjoy summer!

First, talk through new activities beforehand. For example, if you’re going to a birthday party you could say: “It might be loud, and a little crowded. Let’s think about how you might feel in this situation and prepare a plan for what to do.” Using Child Inspired’s Emotion Regulation Speedometer is a great way to start the conversation about how your feelings can change in different environments and situations. Slightly adapted from resources developed by the amazing pediatric OTs at The Alert Program and Zones of Regulation, this speedometer helps children to identify and regulate emotions. The emotional regulation speedometer shows children that when our engines are running “just right” we are at our optimal functional regulation state (ready to listen and learn). When our engines are running “too slow” or “too fast” we might feel bored, tired, or frustrated.

Next, engage in sensory friendly activities at home or in the community that provide tactile input. This could include, going to the park and swinging on the swings for vestibular input, or going on a nature walk to experience different textures in the environment (rocks, grass, etc.). You can also incorporate sensory activities at home. “For example, if you’re heading to the beach, try filling a tray with sand and shells at home. This way kids can get used to the feeling long before you hit the shore.” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson) Child Inspired has created Back- On-Track Boxes to help your child get back on track when feeling angry or over stimulated and for appropriate sensory engagement. Child Inspired’s Back on Track- Summer Sensory Box encourages exploration, sensory engagement, and learning through hands-on play. Sensory boxes vary in format and are themed for seasons, holidays, and skills. Sensory bins help children experience difficult textures one at a time and help develop a positive view by engaging in fun! 

Another helpful tip is to bring a sensory regulation kit with you when going to a place that may be overstimulating. This will help your child feel calm and allow them to channel their sensory needs. Child Inspired’s Back On Track- Over Stimulated Box consists of premade alternative response, movement break dice, self-regulation visual, fidget, and putty.

Lastly, do a trial run beforehand. “A great way to do this is to ‘test’ different components of the sensory experience in a non-stressful setting” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson) and practice the activities ahead of time. For example, if you are going to a waterpark, set up your own waterpark at home with sprinklers, or “if you’re thinking of taking a hike, try doing a short test run in the park or the yard. This way, kids can get a preview of the sensations—how the grass brushes their legs, or how their backpack feels when they carry it for a long time.” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson) This helps children take a step back and engage in sensory experiences in environments that are comfortable and less stimulating. 

What are common sensory processing triggers during the summer?

  1. Loud noises: If you’re planning to go to the boardwalk this summer prepare your child for the loud noises they will experience (people screaming on rollercoaster rides, babies crying, seagulls screeching, arcade games ringing, etc.). Noise cancelling headphones are a great way to reduce noise and intensity children may feel in multi-sensory activities. Headphones also add pressure which can be comforting for children who crave deep pressure. 
  2. Swimming: Swimming has pros and cons for children with sensory processing challenges. “Swimming provides both tactile and proprioceptive input and can be very regulating for kids that can tolerate the swimming pool.” (Parenting OC) However, public swimming pools can often be crowded and overstimulating. “Consider going to the pool during less busy times to avoid sensory overload, if you know your child is sensitive to noise or crowded places. Also, consider visiting an outdoor pool as these tend to be less noisy.” (Parenting OC)
  3. Clothing: Finding comfortable clothing for children with sensory needs is important year round. However, in the summer it tends to be trickier. Maybe your child does not like the clingy feeling of a bathing suit against their skin or the elastic waistband on swim trunks. “There are different bathing suits that have different sensory qualities to them.” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson) Finding sensory-friendly clothes will make going out in the sun this summer much more fun! Target has several sensory friendly/ adaptive swim suits for children. Finding the right shoes this summer is also important. Walking on the sand or grass may be extremely uncomfortable for children with sensory processing challenges.  As a teacher of students with autism or severe and intellectual disabilities, many of my students have had sensory processing issues. It is important to teach children strategies and alternative responses for channelling sensory input. It is also important to recognize that these sensory issues may feel like pins and needles to some children. Instead of pushing your child to go barefoot, simply provide an alternative, such as, aqua socks or other comfortable shoes.
  4. Fireworks: The fourth of July is coming up! This is a time for celebration and many people set off fireworks for the Fourth of July. However, this day can often create sensory overload for children with sensory processing challenges. The boom of the fireworks, bright lights, and sparklers can be overwhelming. Prepare your kiddo in advance! This includes, watching firework display YouTube videos, wearing headphones, bringing a favorite toy for distraction, or setting a timer to signal the start time of the fireworks. 
  5. Sunscreen: Sunscreen is very important if you are spending time outside. However, most children do not like the feeling of applying sunscreen and parents often find themselves in a battle with their children before going to the pool. This pain doubles for parents of children with sensory issues. Common complaints regarding sunscreen are the greasy residue left behind, smell, and feeling of sunscreen being applied to skin. There are different types of sunscreen, so consider which type works best for your kiddo (scent, texture, film, etc.). When finding a sunscreen for your child also consider the application method (spray, lotion, or stick). “The application method you choose can have a huge effect on your ability to tolerate sunscreen, especially for those who are sensory sensitive.” Child Inspired recommends checking out Sawyer’s Stay Put Sunscreen. This sunscreen is non-greasy, scent-free, and light on skin. “”When it comes to sensory-sensitive kids in particular, finding a sunscreen application method they don’t hate will make the process easier, quicker, and more likely to happen as often as it should for reapplying as time goes on.” (USA Today, Anna Wenner) Lastly, when applying sunscreen on your child, use this as an opportunity for deep pressure sensory input. “Instead of using light touch to apply sunblock, use that as an opportunity for a massage. It can be a good way to help desensitize a child before going out.” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson)

Make the most of your summer by preparing and practicing! Remember, the goal is to have a fun summer! “Focus on having fun, learning new skills, and doing what’s best for your kids and yourself.” (Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson)

Authored by Lexi Gooch, Family Education Specialist

Child Inspired is an emerging family-centered, pediatric wellness practice in Southern Delaware . We are so proud of the inspiring group of pediatric therapists and educators that are working collaboratively to bring help and healing to children and families with in-home, outpatient therapy services and community outreach initiatives. The Child Inspired team takes their work very seriously, but does make sure to sprinkle in moments of silliness and laughter, as we all need strategies to cope with the various challenges we must navigate.

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