Summer Adaptations for Children with Sensory Processing Challenges
While summer can be a fun and exciting time of the year, for children with sensory processing difficulties it may be incredibly challenging. Summer activities may consist of different textures, temperatures, and many other sensory experiences. When receptors in our sensory systems are activated, they send messages to our brains to process the sensory stimuli. For individuals with sensory processing difficulties, their brains processes sensory stimuli differently, which causes children to be over responsive (sensitive to stimuli) or under responsive (does not notice or respond to sensory stimuli) to that sensory information or seeks out more input (sensory seeking) to feel regulated.
What is tactile sensitivity (over-responsive)? For children with an over responsive tactile system, their brain processes tactile input (touch, textures, temperature, pain) as irritating or harmful. They may often avoid certain activities, like bathing or art time. Interacting with certain touch stimuli may cause big reactions, such as meltdowns or other behaviors, as their brain is perceiving it as harmful. Some examples or behaviors of tactile sensitive children include:
Refusal to eat certain textures (i.e. soft or soggy foods) or mix different foods together
Being sensitive to certain textures on clothing (i.e. socks or tags on clothes)
Unable to tolerate brushing their teeth due to bristles of toothbrush
Unable to tolerate water on their skin, especially during bath time
Unable to tolerate haircuts, brushing their hair, or cutting their nails
Avoiding messy play, such as using glue, paint, shaving cream, etc
Avoiding hugs or kisses
What is tactile seeking (craves input)? Think of each sensory system as having a threshold. Every child is different, therefore, every child has a different threshold. Sensory seeking children require more sensory input than their peers to meet their threshold so they can feel organized and regulated. When children do not get enough stimulation, they may struggle to attend to tasks, follow directions, and identify their body in space, as well as impact emotional regulation. Some behaviors or observations you make notice of sensory seeking children include:
Seeking out messy play such as shaving cream, playing with food, finger painting, sand, etc
Prefers clothing or other items with different textures
Constantly rubbing their hands and face against different textures or surfaces (i.e. carpet, desk, Play-Doh)
Enjoys laying or sitting against others
Constantly touching others or fiddling with items
Difficulty maintaining personal space
Below are some tips to help children with regulation of their tactile sensory system to maintain a balanced and organized nervous system:
Tactile sensitivity: As the weather gets warm, sweating increases, causing children to feel sticky. For children with tactile sensitivity, the sticky feeling on their skin can be overstimulating, therefore they may try to avoid the heat or doing movement based activities. The following are some suggestions to implement for these children:
Set breaks in the shade
Spray bottle with water inside
Light colored clothing
Tactile sensitivity: Sunscreen is essential for the summer months for skin protection, however, lotion or spray sunscreen can leave children feeling wet or sticky. For these children, using stick sunscreen is a good alternative as you can apply it with slightly firm pressure, and it is not as sticky.
**Note: Light touch is alerting sensory stimuli, especially for tactile sensitive kiddos, therefore they respond best to firm touch.
Tactile seeking: Children who crave tactile input enjoy textures. With supervision, allow them to apply lotion or spray-on sunscreen on their skin to provide opportunities for sensory regulation.
Tactile sensitivity: Some children are very sensitive to the feeling of sand on their skin. Allow these children to wear wear socks or beach shoes when walking and allow them to play on a towel or beach chair. Providing them with heavy work opportunities prior to engaging with sand helps organize their nervous system to help tolerate textures like dry or wet sand on their bodies.
Tactile seeking: These children enjoy playing with different textures, as this is very regulating for their nervous system. Encourage play with sand & water and provide sand toys with textures (ridges, bumps, etc). Playing with sand can be a great way to practice skills such as scooping, learning different shapes or letters, and development of bilateral coordination.
Tactile sensitivity: Children who are over responsive to tactile input may require additional support to participate in water play or swimming. Providing heavy work prior to water play will help to regulate their nervous system. In addition, children with decreased body awareness may depend on their vision to determine where they are in space to safely navigate their environment. When they have to close their eyes to go under water, this can be very disorienting in terms of body awareness. Consider prepping them by placing a damp towel or pouring small amounts of water on their face and body. If wet hair or occluded vision is impacting participation, consider providing the child with goggles or a swim cap.
Tactile sensitivity: These children may not enjoy sticky or messy foods such as ice cream, popsicles or fruit (i.e. watermelon or strawberry slices). These are often foods that kids may eat with their hands, however, with the heat, cold items can melt quickly making a mess all over their hands. Provide tactile sensitive children with a bowl to place under an ice cream cone or popsicle to reduce the foods from melting on their hands or clothing. Another suggestion is to cut up fruits into bite sized pieces to pick up with a fork or spoon rather than eating large slices with their hands. For children that do not tolerate cold foods, let it sit outside the freezer for a few minutes prior to giving it to the child.
Tactile Seeking: Allow them to get messy with their foods so they get that sensory input their bodies seek. When introducing new foods or textures, allow them to explore/play with their food prior to encouraging them to place it in their mouth.
How to help a child with tactile sensitivity:
Heavy work, also known as proprioceptive input, activates our proprioceptive receptors in our muscles and joints. Heavy work is very regulating and organizing for our bodies. Think of how you feel after a good workout or laying under a weighted blanket. In both scenarios, your proprioceptive receptors are being activated. Heavy work consists of deep touch pressure input (i.e. weighted blanket, firm massages) or any activity where you are pulling, pushing or carrying items. Providing children with heavy work activities prior to tactile based activities, such as bathing, art, summer camp, or a day in the beach, is important to get their bodies regulated so that their reaction to touch input is not so profound.
Heavy work activities prior to a summer activity:
Walking up or down stairs (rather than elevator)
Carrying weighted backpack to/from car or during car ride
Wrapping child tightly in blanket
Other sensory techniques:
Weighted lap blanket
Theraputty or Play-Doh
Noise cancelling headphones for auditory sensitivity
Drinking thick smoothies from a straw, or eating crunchy/ chewy foods for oral motor input.
This is especially helpful to do before introducing a new texture to a child or when a child tend to put items in their mouth. This is because it is activating proprioceptive receptors in their face and mouth.
Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. (2022, June 29). Sensory Regulation Tips for Summer. https://keltymentalhealth.ca/blog/sensory-regulation-tips-summer
Mendability. (2017, February 22). Tactile defensiveness: How to do Sensory Enriched Touch. https://www.mendability.com/autism-therapy/sensory-processing/tactile-defensiveness-how-to-do-sensory-enriched-touch/
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