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Sensory Smart Summer Vacation Tips for Helping Your Child with SPD Enjoy the Summer

Vacations can be wonderful, but for sensory kids, the change in a routine can be stress-inducing. They may become more anxious and have more trouble self-regulating their behavior because they don’t have a sense of predictability as they usually do. Of course, kids need down time, but those with sensory processing disorder also need more structure during vacations than other children do.

Stick to the usual bedtime or transition to a new one and stick to it. Sleepovers and late nights can be fun for some, but not all, children with sensory processing disorder. Kids with milder sensory issues and better self-regulation may be able to enjoy them as long as they are followed by several days of being eased back into the regular bedtime. Some sensory kids can’t handle these huge changes in routine, however, and react very badly to such a disruption. If you do allow for sleepovers, host them at your house to ensure that the child doesn’t stay up too late or wake up too early. If you are expecting the need for your child to stay up past his bedtime, ease into it. Have him go to bed 10 to 15 minutes later, and wake up 10 to 15 minutes earlier, for a couple of days. Repeat until you’ve moved his bedtime and waking time to where you need it or want it to be. Reverse the process as you get closer to school starting up again in the fall. (You’ll find more bedtime tips in Raising a Sensory Smart Child.)

Communicate to your child about changes in routine. If family will be visiting, mealtimes will be different, your child will be sleeping in a different bed, or you’ll be attending a gathering of people, let your child know. Answer her questions about exactly what will be happening as this gives her a sense of predictability. Use a calendar and perhaps a To Do list each day if it helps your child feel a sense of predictability. Younger children can benefit from a Visual To Do list, which is simply a To Do list made up of simple stick figure or line drawings or photographs showing such activities as having breakfast, going to the playground, etc.

Make your child a part of the decision making. While your child can’t take charge of making the larger decisions, let her participate in decisions that directly affect her. Does she have to participate in every activity you have planned, or can she skip some or “put in an appearance” at others before retreating to a situation she is more comfortable in? If you are traveling, can she pick which bed she will sleep in and bring her own pillow? The more of a sense of control she has, the easier it will be for her to tolerate the unpredictability in your plans and the unfamiliarity of new places or rare activities.

Get your child outdoors. The transition to weather changes may be challenging to a child with sensory issues, and if he is used to staying indoors he may resist playing in the sunshine. Allow him to overdress for the weather if that makes him more comfortable, with the stipulation that getting sweaty means having to bathe or shower. Find fun reasons to be outside. Go ahead and take him to the movie he has be wanting to see, but follow it with a visit to a playground, woods, beach, river, or field where you can kick a ball around. Just 5 minutes in nature reduces levels of cortisol, our stress hormone. There are many studies about the health benefits of nature, many of which involve reduced cortisol levels. If your child’s anxiety levels go down shortly after she gets into nature, you’re not imagining it! Also, sunlight helps our bodies create vitamin D, necessary for good health, and serotonin, which is our feel-good hormone. (If you ever doubted that research shows nature’s remarkable benefits for our brains and our health, check out Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan.)

Vacation time can be fun for your child with sensory issues, but make sure the days have some structure and predictability.

Explain sensory issues to caretakers and activity supervisors. If someone else will be taking care of your child during vacation time, whether it is a relative, friend, grandmother, or someone else, or it’s a coach, youth activity supervisor, or Vacation Bible School teacher, fill that person in on your child’s sensory needs and what to do if your child becomes very uncomfortable and begins to show signs of distress, withdrawing or acting out. My video on Sensory Processing Disorder and the 7 Senses is a good primer:

or you can direct the person to

May your child have a low-stress, enjoyable summer vacation!

And remember, my coauthored, award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child is packed full of helpful tips and insights that can make your life as a sensory smart parent much, much easier. Grab a copy if you haven’t already!

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