Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is poorly understood and many wrongly assume it is synonymous with autism. The fact that it is left out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and not formally recognized by the medical community adds to the confusion of families looking to better understand their children.
This can affect greatly how your family travels since children may need to fulfill their sensory needs in unfamiliar environments or may be overwhelmed by the overload of sensory input in public places.
So how can you accommodate your child’s SPD while on the go? Here are some ways to help and turn traveling into a positive experience for families with sensory processing disorders.
If a developing brain has trouble synthesizing certain sensory inputs, the result can be an over or under-stimulated child who is seeking regulation. There is a wide variety of presentations for children.
Signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorders vary greatly based on the child.
Children who exhibit hyposensitivity have a wide range of behaviors which may be crashing into or hitting people, spinning or jumping excessively, biting, and having trouble sleeping.
On the contrary, children who demonstrate hypersensitivity are often covering their ears from noise, have an aversion to textures, hide from bright lights, fear playing, have poor balance, or have outbursts from unexpected events and sudden movements.
As a parent, you may feel any deviation from routine is risky and be tempted to have your family avoid travel completely. But if traveling is something you need or want your family to do, SPD does not have to limit your family.
Getting out to adventure with your child has many benefits including learning life skills, family bonding time, reducing isolation after the pandemic, safety skills, and sensory desensitization.
While seeing an occupational therapist to make a specialized treatment plan is always preferred, here is an introduction to broad techniques and tips that can help every family.
First, you need to plan your trip! The Gowhee App is an easy-to-use interactive map that helps parents find family-friendly adventures and places with thousands of locations. Not only does Gowhee give you recommendations from a community of traveling families you can trust, but it specifically has a “Sensory Sensitive” filter to make planning even more accessible to your family.
Establishing an element of predictability is key with your child. Buy travel books, tell travel stories, talk about your trip, practice pulling the suitcase around the home, and then do it all again. Trying to mirror certain routines while traveling can bring even more comfort, even just by bringing a certain blanket, book, or familiar foods.
When trying to accommodate children with SPD, home might be the place that feels the most comfortable. You can provide the accommodations they need and give them time and space to go through the motions of balancing their sensory sensitivity.
When traveling, the best way to reproduce the same environment is to target places that offer those accommodations. Again, GoWhee is making it easy to find those places with amenities thanks to the “sensory sensitive filter”.
Kid-friendly places with special certifications/attributions. For instance, museums and other locations with the “certified autism friendly” mention, will offer a certain amount of amenities, and guarantee a team of staff trained into accommodating children with SPD and ASD (autism spectrum disorder).
Special amenities onsite such as a sensory packs like this with necessities like noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, a cuddly toy for comfort, an emotion chart, a scent cube etc..
Other family-friendly places may include a sensory map or at least a sensory preparation kit for families, on their website, to help plan the visit while knowing where triggering attractions are, and by helping children know ahead of time what to expect.
If your child has sensory avoidance and is triggered by large crowds, you may also inquire about “autism-friendly days” or “Low sensory days”. These days hours or days, are usually specially dedicated to children with SPD and limit crowds, lights, and other triggers while allowing children to enjoy all the attractions.
Finally, if your child is a sensory seeker, know that many playgrounds worldwide have now included sensory walks, or sensory walls, in their structures. Those are the perfect pit stops to load up on sensory experiences during long road trips.
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If flying, opt for a red-eye flight and ask for bulkhead seats if possible. You will have more space and less traffic near your seat which can help your child’s behavior stay regulated.
Be sure to take advantage of the preboarding offered to families with children to give everyone more time to settle in. American Airlines now offers free mock flights for children and people with disabilities. This can be a great way to give your child an opportunity to know what to expect. Details and available locations are available on their website.
Even more exciting is the growing network of airports with sensory rooms; these can be calming and fun for all kiddos. Check online for participating airports but they range from Pheonix to Pittsburg to Portland. In an emergency, you can step into an airport breastfeeding pod or bathroom stall to escape crowds and recenter with your child.
The goal is to do things prophylactically in your everyday life, to keep your child regulated before they’re feeling out of control. One of these things is often a sensory diet. While an OT evaluation would be best to set your child up with an evidence-based program, you can create a sensory toolkit and have “sensory snacks” for your child along the way.
A “sensory snack” refers to a short sensory break to help give your child opportunities to self-regulate and process emotions.
If in doubt, heavy work (pushing/pulling/using large muscle groups with resistance) is an example of proprioceptive input. Proprioceptive input is calming for both sensory avoiding and seeking groups. This could be as simple as pushing a suitcase through the airport or looping a therapy band under your child’s seat for resistive arm movements.
While sensory toys have become popular, they often focus on tactile and visual stimulation. These are the least practical tools to help regulate your child.
Vestibular (spinning), proprioceptive (heavy work), and oral (chewing) is known to help children regulate much more effectively. Oral stimulation like chewing tubes, sucking on candy, drinking a smoothie or pudding through a straw, or blowing bubbles in a drink is often regulated.
Remember, you’re trying to pack a heavy work-based sensory diet into the child’s space limitations of a car or airplane seat.
Without the help of regular occupational therapy or sensory integration therapy sessions, you will have to use trial and error to determine what items work for your child.
The goal is to create a sensory routine they can do throughout the trip to stay regulated. It could include headphones with or without music, a fold-up rocking seat, biting a chew necklace, a hoodie or a weighted blanket not greater than 10% of your child’s weight, scented playdoh, or visual calming tubes. These examples just scratch the surface of what activities can make up a sensory diet.
For families without insurance or on the go, there is an OT for Free program that offers virtual OT consults to families in need anywhere in the world.
“The GoWhee app offers a chance for working parents to have better work life balance”
– As seen in CBS
Traveling can be for every family, regardless of sensory needs. Certain families just need a few more tools in their bag and some extra planning. The benefits of creating these family memories can make the tougher learning moments even more worthwhile.
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About the Author: Sara Rabuck, MS, OTR/L
Sara is a licensed and practicing occupational therapist in Portland, Oregon. She has traveled to over 45 countries and has a passion for culture, language, and nature. She has a toddler who loves to join on all the adventures and is a proud travel ambassador for GoWhee.
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