With Victoria Day around the corner, many are looking forward to the BBQ and fireworks celebrations. However, many children can struggle with the sights, sounds and general excitement of these celebrations.
Each brain has a unique way of regulating information coming in through our senses; this is called sensory processing. It is the nervous system’s job to make sense of all the information around us through our senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and sound) so that we can attach meaning to it and react as needed.
Our ability to process and respond varies from person to person. For example, some people jump at loud noises, get overwhelmed in crowds, enjoy bland foods, are bothered by the tags in the back of shirts or are generally overly excitable, distracted or impulsive. This is the sensory system at work; trying to make sense of it all. We all have sensory needs but they can be especially prominent in children with Autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. Sensory sensitivities or preferences do not always mean a person has a diagnosable disorder.
If your child has trouble dealing with sensory processing, here are some survival tips to help your whole family enjoy the celebrations together.
- Prepare your child for the day. If you are planning an evening outing to a fireworks display, make sure your child knows what to expect; there are several examples on YouTube. Show them pictures of where you will be going or better yet, drive by or visit the site. Social stories or visual calendars are great tools and allow a child to have a better idea of what to expect (the more specific/step by step, the better). Let them know that there will be lots of fun activities but also some that they may need some “tools” from the toolkit in order to be more successful. Pack some earplugs, park farther away or bring some activities that may distract them (squishy fidgets are great for calming).
- Bring things along that they enjoy. If you are attending a potluck BBQ bring along their favourite food or toy. Having familiar objects may help to comfort your child if they become overwhelmed. Give your child a job to do to build a feeling of competency in a situation where they may have apprehension.
- Establish a safe place. Whether it’s bringing along a small tent or a blanket to hide underneath or finding a spot that allows relief from noise and people, make sure to establish a “safe place” for a break. This will also decrease the chance that a child may be unexpectedly bumped if touch is a specific sensitivity. If it’s easier to retreat to a location, agree upon a “safe word” or visual cue that he or she can use to let you know that the child is feeling overwhelmed. Even a special lawn chair could provide enough of a buffer from the crowds.
- Be aware. So you are ready and prepared for every situation. Continue to pay attention to cues if it’s too much for your child to handle. An over-stimulated sensory system usually shows up as behaviour but remember that your child wants to be successful and that giving consequences for this type of behaviour will not change the fact that your child is overwhelmed. Think about keeping visits short and manageable. It is okay to remove a child from a situation and go home. This is a great way to validate their feelings of being overwhelmed and should not be seen as defeat.
Following these tips can provide for a fun outing. If you have further concerns or questions about how your child processes sensory information consult an Occupational Therapist for assessment, tips and tools.
With thanks to Lori Hill, OT, KidsAbility
"I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn and grow at the Waterloo Region Psychology Consortium. The range of experience across sites and never-ending support from my supervisors allowed me to meet every one of my training goals and provided me with professional opportunities that left me feeling prepared, confident, and excited about my future as a clinical psychologist."