Tag Archives: sensory disorders

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 .

The Benefits of Weighted Blankets

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

Weighted blankets have become very popular in the past year, not only for children with sensory processing difficulties and Autism, but also with “neurotypical” adults. It’s hard to go online or browse the aisles of Walmart without seeing ads for weighted blankets touting an improved night’s sleep or improved mood. So what exactly is the hype around weighted blankets and why do they help children with Autism or other sensory processing issues?

What are weighted blankets?

Weighted blankets are usually big plush blankets filled with some sort of pellet to make it heavier (depending on what type of blanket you buy or make, they are usually filled with plastic, sand, steel shot beads, plastic poly pellets, micro-beads, etc.)

They can range in weight from a couple pounds to about 20 pounds and can be made out of just about any type of fabric imaginable!  Weighted blankets can be worn on the lap to help a fidgety child calm down in order to sit at the table for a meal with family, help ease anxiety during a car ride, or help lull a child to sleep.

Weighted blankets for children should not exceed 10% of their body weight for safety (weighted blankets should be a comfortable compression, not so heavy that they cannot be easily taken off by a child). These blankets are used for calming input to help a child “slow their body down,” not to be so heavy as to inhibit movement.

What’s the theory behind weighted blankets?

Weighted blankets can have a calming effect when worn over the body for the same reason that your child would seek a big hug when they are upset. This weight provides deep tactile input to the skin, joints, and muscles that tells your child’s brain to relax.

According to the American Sleep Association, deep tactile input provided from weighted blankets tells our central nervous system to switch from our “fight or flight” sympathetic state of being anxious and panicky to our “rest and recharge” parasympathetic state where our heart rates slow and we are able to calm ourselves down. Deep tactile input causes the body to release serotonin in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that creates a sense of calm and well-being.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or sensory processing difficulties, it is really hard to get their bodies to move from this “fight or flight” to “rest and recharge” state on their own. Occupational Therapists are trained in identifying strategies to help the central nervous system to calm through the use of movement, tactile, olfactory, visual, auditory, and proprioceptive input. Weighted blankets can be an effective modality to help accomplish this.

Store Bought vs. Homemade

There are a plethora of store-bought options for weighted blankets that range from relatively cheap to extremely pricey. Whether you purchase or make your weighted blanket should be based upon how much time you have available as well how much you want to spend. Both store bought or homemade options can have the same calming effect.

Regardless, like any other blanket, it should be washed occasionally. Make sure that the materials you purchase are conducive to being either machine or hand washed without destroying the blanket. For example, your blanket is filled with sand or rice, it would be a good idea to purchase a cover to go over the blanket so that it may be removed and washed.

Where to Shop

There are so many options for weighted blankets online and in store. Here’s a list of a couple choices that I have suggested to families in the past (ask your Occupational Therapist which companies they prefer and have had good experiences with).

  • Amazon: Amazon has a large selection of blankets that range from $50-$100. Be sure to check individual seller’s policies on returns and weight specifications.
  • Fun and Function: This therapy product website has weighted comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and lap pads with fun designs and textures that are kid-friendly.
  • Support groups: Parent support groups on Facebook often either personally know someone who makes great blankets or knows what companies make the best ones for a fair price. (For clients at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, ask your Occupational Therapist about weighted blankets created by Easterseals families that are low to no cost!)

How to Make Homemade Weighted Blankets

Because I am always a fan of saving a few bucks and getting a little crafty, I usually tell my client’s families to try making a weighted blanket on their own. If a family is up for it, I recommend buying a duvet cover and going to a craft store such as Joann Fabrics or Michaels to purchase filler material. The duvet can then be sown shut and you can place another cover on top of the filled duvet so that the outer layer can be easily washed.

Making your own also lends itself to making a blanket that would exactly fit your child’s interests. You can purchase durable, washable fabrics with your child’s favorite characters on it. There are also online instructions for how to make your own blanket, like this one from Quality Plastic Pellets. Make sure to remember the rule for the weight of the blanket… make sure it weighs at most 10% of the child’s body weight.

Aromatherapy and Weighted Blankets

For an extra calming sensory experience, you can even add aromatherapy scents to your weighted blanket. Of course, make sure that the child enjoys the scent and is not bothered by this olfactory input prior to adding it to the blanket. Scents such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, and bergamot can have a calming effect and can help with inducing sleep. Aromatherapy oils can be purchased at your local drug store. Click here to read more about adding aromatherapy to weighted blankets.

Whether you want to buy or make your own, weighted materials can be trialed in therapy sessions to see if the child has a positive, calming response with its use. Your Occupational Therapist will collaborate with you to consider what textures your child can tolerate in fabrics, if the sound of the material inside the blanket could be irritating, and when it would be most beneficial for the child to use the blanket.

Choosing a weighted blanket can be both an art and a science; if you are interested in trialing a weighted blanket for your child, feel free to ask your child’s Occupational Therapist about it!

For more information about Occupational Therapy services at Easter Seals, visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html