Sensory Strategy Success

Clinical Expertise

Apr 25, 2022

Medical Reviewer: Christen Stevens, MOT, OTR/L
Last Updated: April 22, 2022

April is National Autism Awareness Month. Statistics show as many as 90-95% of children with Autism and 16% of the general student population have difficulty with sensory processing and modulation. Sensory processing is how we receive and organize information from the environment and from our own bodies. All of our body’s senses are involved (auditory, visual, tactile, oral, proprioception, interoception and vestibular).

Sometimes our sensory preferences and sensory needs cause difficulty participating in our roles and routines. For a child, this may look like acting out, avoiding tasks, and having unwanted behaviors that limit the child’s ability to participate, play, learn and listen.

The purpose of this blog post is to share strategies to help you and your child have more success managing sensory-rich situations. Below are some practical strategies that you can try for any environment (birthday parties, doctor visits, grocery shopping, getting to school, etc.).

  • Get enough rest
  • Stick to a routine
  • Prepare and explain changes in routine or upcoming events (social story, role-play, look at pictures of the location or activity, discuss the process)
  • Pack calming items (stuffed animal, fidget toy, noise-canceling headphones or music, snack, weighted item
  • Use a visual schedule or checklist for parts of the experience
  • Take breaks and/or plan an “escape”

Below are some tips for common summertime scenarios that may present with sensory challenges:

Theme parks
  • Go to parks during off-peak times.
  • Practice being in crowds of people. Take your child to a busy mall or any other place where noise and lights might be more than normal levels to introduce these sensory experiences.
  • Some theme parks provide sensory information about the attractions (i.e. detailed guide you can download from the website). It breaks down everything from flashing lights and smells to how long you’ll be in the dark. Call or email the theme park’s disability services office to ask if it provides these kinds of ride details.
  • Most rides have videos online (either from the park or from other visitors) that can show your child what it is like to go on the ride.
  • Bring sunglasses and ear protection if needed.
  • Let characters know ahead of time if your child is sensitive to touch. You can offer high fives or waves instead of hugs.
Eating out
  • Before going, use calming sensory activities (heavy work and deep pressure input).
  • Go to restaurants at times that are less busy or request to sit in a quiet area. This will decrease the noise and offer a less intense sensory experience.
  • Look up the menu ahead of time (with your child, if appropriate) and decide on a meal so that there is no confusion or tantrums when the meal is ordered.
  • Bring distractions: have quiet activities for your child such as books, coloring, or other items from home they enjoy.
  • Take a walk or movement break while waiting for food.
Flying on a plane
  • Watch videos or read books in advance.
  • Talk positively and realistically about the flying experience.
  • Explain what turbulence is and what your child’s stomach may feel like with take-off and landing.
  • Pack “comfort” items and sensory preference items.
  • Oral input to help with ear pressure (gum, lollipop, cup with a straw, or crunchy snacks).
  • Can do “pretend” flights in the car or at home.

Your child’s preferences and sensory needs may change. Be patient and reflect on how previously strategies worked. If you are unable to navigate these challenges on your own, there are several resources online or you can talk to your child’s pediatrician about an occupational therapy referral to receive skilled guidance on an individualized sensory plan.

Resources:

Medical Reviewer

Christen Stevens, MOT, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist, Lead Therapist - Brooks Rehabilitation San Pablo Outpatient Clinic
Christen Stevens is a lead therapist at the Brooks San Pablo clinic. She received her Masters in OT from the University of Florida and is originally from Jacksonville. She has practiced as an Occupational Therapist with Brooks Rehabilitation for 7+ years treating a variety of developmental, neurological, and orthopedic conditions. Her passion is working with children and their families to meet goals and improve independence in daily life skills.
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