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Understanding Autism, OCD and ADHD - Advice for Parents & Carers

Summer & Sensory Processing

17 July 2023

Turn those summer challenges into a summer of fun. This article provides strategies on how to support your child as they face new sensations and sensory memories of summer. This article has been written by our Group Occupational Therapist, Margaret Morton.

We all process the sensory information that we get from the world in relation to how we understand what is happening now and next. Strange, intense or unexpected sensations can create a sense of panic. When we are often panicked, this pathway in our brain becomes well practised and it is easier to become scared, upset, overwhelmed or angry. To help manage these emotions, we can:

  • Support our children and teens to understand what will happen during an outing before we go: consider preparing a sensory or social story that talks about what you will do, how long it may take and what senses will be part of the experience. Their experiences and questions will be the best ones to help you consider what summer experiences you need to plan for.

  • Consider taking a bag full of things that are comforting, this could be sensory tools (things that feel nice or things that help us screen out things we don’t like)

  • On the day, use now and next with lots of lovely next things to do, something like “we will put sunscreen on and then we can have a snack before we leave the house.”

  • We can create social and sensory stories that are more real by looking online for pictures about where we will go, how we will get there and where we might stop along the way if we need to.

Be willing to be creative and do what works for your child instead of what is habit: walking across a beach may feel more comfortable if we know how far we’re walking, and that we will set up a beach chair and mat where we can wipe our feet and feel more comfortable.

Offer choices: having choices on hand rather than one solution can help:

  • Do you want to wear trainers so the sand can’t get to your feet?

  • It’s going to be noisy, would you like some ear defenders, a song to listen to, or to sing a song with me?

  • It’s going to be bright, would you like to wear this hat with a brim, this sun cream or this sun shirt?

  • It’s going to be busy, would it feel better to walk between 2 of us? Look at a map and find good places for a time out away from crowds.

Remember that our body based senses are the best ones to top up when we get nervous, anxious or upset when new experiences or sensory challenges threaten to overwhelm us
: When we are moving our bodies, our muscles and joints send information back to our brain which reassures us about where our body is in space. This sensory information (which is often called proprioceptive information) is usually expressed as calming sensation. We can also use this information to know how far and fast to move our bodies to achieve a task. If we don’t offer proprioceptive strategies, our children may try some of their own, like running away or hitting out. Here are some quick ideas to support feeling calm, join in to try them:

  • Show children and teens how to wrap their arms around themselves and give themselves a tight hug.

  • Encourage children and teens how to link their fingers and press down on the top of their heads.

  • Offer a crunchy or chewy snack, a drink through a straw, or some chewing gum to blow bubbles (using our mouth is a powerful way of regulating that starts as young as being a baby.)

  • Move a different way: stamp or jump instead of walking or dance to music.

Other key sensory strategies:

  • Touch and proprioception:
    • Offer a fidget to squeeze, click or spin
    • Consider a taggie blanket with different fabrics to feel and crinkle
    • Consider carrying a smooth pebble to rub
    • Offer a hug, link arms or hold hands if accepted by your child

  • Hearing:
    • Can we find a quieter place?
    • Offer headphones and music
    • Bring ear defenders

  • Visual:
    • Take sunglasses or a brimmed hat if it is too bright
    • Consider where you stop for a rest: is there a quiet corner, is the lighting bright or flashing, are the walls painted in a plain colour?
    • Sometimes, things that feel challenging because they are visually busy may be related to how our sight is preparing us to balance as we move around people and objects and so may also be partially vestibular

  • Vestibular: The first step in helping support your child's vestibular senses is to be aware of how challenging vestibular information can be. We don’t think about vestibular strategies often because they are some of the first senses we are exposed to. We get vestibular information from our inner ears and it tells us how our head is moving through space. We are most aware of vestibular information when we don’t use it effectively to stay balanced. Think about the last time you tripped, did your head moving quickly make you feel alert, and made your muscles move to keep you balanced? To help support your child’s vestibular senses:

    • Consider if the ground they are walking across is going to be uneven i.e a beach with stones. To combat this, try playing on an old mattress, allowing your child to walk across it as it's on the ground
    • Could using an escalator make your child feel anxious?
    • Add vestibular first in sitting, for instance, playing a game that involves rocking like 'row, row, row your boat'
    • Let your child push someone else on a swing to practice feeling comfortable with vestibular information, or, find a swing that your child can relax into rather than needing to stay balanced on 

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