Supporting Children with Sensory Disorders while Traveling

By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

When a child with sensory processing disorder goes on vacation, it may be difficult for their bodies to go into that “relax and restore” mode. Children with sensory processing disorders are constantly “battling” with their environment in many of the following ways:

  • Every sound is too loud and hurts their ears
  • Smells are abrasive and can cause them to gag or vomit
  • New tactile sensations send them into a panic
  • Changes in their normal routine can make them extremely anxious
  • New sights and movement in their environment can startle them

The following are some tips that may help support a child with sensory issues during a summer vacation so they may have a relaxing experience.

Visual Schedules

An example of a visual schedule.

If your child benefits from knowing what to expect in the day, it may be useful to set up a visual schedule revolving around your vacation. This can include the steps you will need to complete going through the airport. (Travelers Aid Chicago has resources to make a visual schedule specific to O’Hare airport).

Some children may also just benefit from going over what to expect on their vacation. You can help them prepare by saying, “We are going to the airport and this is what to expect…”  or “We will be on vacation for 4 days. During those days we can do these activities…”

Long Car Rides

3 kids in the car, reading a map, eating and wearing headphones.

Children that are constantly on the move may find it extremely difficult to sit still during long car rides to their vacation destination. Often times kids who are always “on the go” benefit from heavy work activities that involve pushing, pulling, and carrying. These activities give input to the joints and muscles which can be very regulating. Here are a few heavy work ideas specifically for car rides: 

Squigs are toys that can keep children busy on long car rides.
  • Squigs on the windows: I suggest this for children who need something to keep their hands busy with push and pull component to get heavy work. These small plastic suction cups stick perfectly to car windows and to each other. Children can build and make a picture with them on the windows 
  • Pop TubesThese toys also provide an opportunity for children to push and pull when you are cooped up in the car.
  • Animal walk breaks at rest stops: Just as you need to get out and stretch your legs during a long ride, your child with sensory difficulties will need this break too! At rest stops, take advantage of the opportunity to move by doing silly activities that promote heavy work: walking like a bear, jumping like a kangaroo, playing on a playground if the rest stop has one. 

What to Pack

Girl sitting in a suitcase

Here’s a list of sensory supports that may help your child while you are on vacation. Make sure to consult your occupational therapist about which items may be most beneficial for your child.

Girl wearing headphones.
  • Noise cancelling headphones: Some children benefit from wearing headphones if they are easily overwhelmed by the loud noises of crowds. Noise canceling headphones can range anywhere from $20 to upwards of $200. These might be handy for kids that would get overwhelmed by crowds, traveling on an airplane, or seeing a firework show on the 4th of July. 
  • Comfort item: Bringing a stuffed animal or blanket that your child finds soothing may be beneficial for when they become anxious or overwhelmed while on vacation. You could even add soothing aromatherapy scents such as vanilla, lavender, or chamomile to these comfort items for an extra sensory “treat.” (Always make sure your child tolerates and likes the scent prior to adding it to their comfort item. If the smell is too bothersome to them, they may not want to be around it anymore!) 
  • Weighted blanket or stuffed animal:  Some children with sensory processing difficulties find compression comforting. A weighted blanket or stuffed animal may provide some calming input and tell their body to relax. Weighted items are now available at most stores or online. Click here to read more about the benefits of weighted blankets.
  • Fidgets:  These are small items that kids can fiddle with in their hands to keep them busy and focused when they may feel overwhelmed. Fidgets can be bracelets, putty, pop tubes, etc. 
  • Identification bracelets: Sometimes when a child is overwhelmed, they may run away from the group. Because of this, it may be a good idea to make a bracelet with your phone number on it so that you can be reached in case of an emergency. Options include beads with numbers on them, temporary tattoos that you can specially order with your phone number on it. There are even cute “Disney-themed” buttons and tattoos with emergency contact information that you can specially order. Here are some examples of number bracelets and  temporary tattoos or you can design your own ID bracelet

The Benefit of Breaks

Children are working very hard to stay regulated and calm when they are being bombarded with all this new sensory input that comes with a vacation. They may just need a little break. It is absolutely okay to take some time in your hotel room or find a quiet spot for your child to regroup. Sometimes just a quiet room with a preferred toy or sensory tool is just the break that your child needs in order to enjoy the rest of their vacation.  

You can help your child create a “calm down corner” in your hotel room or wherever you are staying. This spot does not need to be complicated – it can be a little corner of the room with pillows, blankets, and some of the items previously listed in “What to Pack.”

This can be their special area in which they can retreat to take a break if they become overwhelmed and enjoy a moment away from whatever input is overwhelming them.

This is not a punitive space to send them to when they are behaving badly or being uncooperative. This is a calm space that you can offer them a break in or they can elect to go to when needed. Just as you may go sit by the pool after a busy day on vacation to relax and recharge, your child with sensory processing difficulties may need their own unique space to do the same.

Unexpected Meltdowns

Girl who is upset hugs her mom.

Children with sensory processing difficulties can have meltdowns when they get too overwhelmed by the sensory input in their surroundings and/or if they become too fatigued. As well prepared as you may be, you can’t anticipate or prepare for every meltdown.

If your child has a meltdown while on vacation, first try to figure out what elicited the meltdown and remove them from the input that is too overwhelming for them. It may be helpful to go through all 5 senses: Was there a smell, sound, touch, sight, taste that they experienced that caused them to react? Were they in a loud, busy crowd for too long? Did the plan change too suddenly and without warning?  

Once you have removed them from whatever caused the meltdown (as best as you can), give them input to help calm them down. For some children, they like compression from big hugs or weighted blankets. Other children need to put on their noise cancelling headphones and have some quiet time. 

Sometimes children with sensory processing difficulties can meltdown because they are so tired from holding themselves together for so long in a new environment. As a clinician, I have an understanding of the experience, and know it must be exhausting to be bothered by what most people consider “normal” input, such as the sounds of people talking, the feel of your clothes on your body, or the smell of the pool on vacation.

It’s important for parents to understand that their child with a sensory processing disorder is expending a lot of energy processing input from their surroundings. They may need more patience and understanding when they are having a tough time with changes outside their normal routine. It may be helpful for parents to help children label when they are becoming agitated, by saying “It looks like you are not comfortable right now, can we take a break?”  

Summer vacation should be an opportunity for everyone in your family to rest and recharge. If you need help brainstorming what activities/preparations would be best for your child this summer, consult your occupational therapist for more insight into your child’s unique sensory needs.  

Read our previous blog on How to Plan a Sensory Friendly and Accessible Vacation

For more information about Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley and our Occupational Therapy services, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html .

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