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Adapting the environment for sensory children, part two

Part 2 of 2: Physical and emotional adaptations 

child hidden in pillows-web
Making it personal
In the last post, we discussed visual, auditory, and olfactory accommodations you can make to your child’s environment. Now we’ll move on to physical and emotional adaptations you can make to your child’s person and personal space. 
 
Personal physical adaptations
These strategies target reducing stress on your child that arises from physical sensitivities. You’ll want to address both body and personal space issues.
 
Comfortable and comforting clothing
If her clothing is annoying her, she won’t be able to focus on anything else. Many retailers, both online and in brick and mortar stores, sell sensory friendly clothing; for example, clothes without tags or seams, very soft clothing, and compression clothing. 
 
You can also make your own adaptations. Cut out the tags, being sure to snip out every sharp little edge. Have your child wear his socks and/or underwear inside out so the seams don’t annoy him. Buy tight, close-fitting clothing to wear as a bottom layer, or extra loose clothing, depending on your child’s sensory needs.
 
As discussed in the previous post, offer sunglasses, caps, headphones, earplugs, as necessary.
 
Your child can wear a weighted backpack if that helps her feel more ‘grounded’ and secure.
 
Reduced mess = reduced stress
If your child can’t deal with being messy, sticky, or dirty, keep a close eye on his surroundings in order to keep them clean. Always carry wipes and hand sanitizer in case she inadvertently touches something distressing outside.
 
Recharge regularly
Be sure to schedule regular sensory breaks throughout the day so your child doesn’t become overloaded. Offer different sensory experiences and activities.
 
Take natural movement breaks. If your child finds it helpful, take a break for massage, deep pressure, compression or hugs. Don’t let your child get “hangry” — and make it a sensory snack, perhaps something chewy or a thick liquid sipped through a straw.
 
Bathroom breaks
In addition to the ideas mentioned in the last post (paper in the toilet bowl to absorb sound, filling the bathtub with the bathroom door closed before your child goes into the room), you can have your child bathe or shower after other family members, so that the room is very warm and the transition from dressed to undressed is easier.
 
Is your child anxious about using a “big” toilet? Two useful strategies are: providing a footstool for dangling feet (and to push against), and fitting a training ring inside the larger toilet seat for stability. 
 
On the go
Always have your child sit or stand where people can only approach her from the front, so she is prepared for encounters rather than startled by them. Sitting by a wall makes this easy and unobtrusive. 
 
Don’t allow people to hug or touch your child without his approval, even family members. Explain his sensory needs in advance to your family and make it clear that they are to respect them.
 
Be sure to give your child enough physical personal space so she doesn’t feel threatened. She can pretend there is an invisible “bubble” around her which you will help her maintain.
 
Have your child keep a fidget toy or squeeze ball with him to relieve stress. Always carry sensory snacks, as mentioned above, which do double duty in warding off hunger and providing a stress outlet.
 
Personal emotional adaptations
These strategies target your child’s mindset. If your child is well prepared mentally for the day’s activities, including any changes to the expected routine, she’ll be calmer and better equipped to handle the day.
 
Proper preparation
Describe crowded, bright, noisy or smelly situations ahead of time to your child so she can get mentally ready. Be sure not to present them as something to be afraid of; provide information in a neutral, factual way, along with suggestions of what she can do to keep her cool, and be sure to mention the fun aspects along with the challenging ones.
 
Keep it consistent
People with Sensory Processing Disorder value routines, schedules, and organization. Your child will function best when things are predictable and familiar. Be consistent and try to follow the same routines. Of course, that isn’t always possible. 
 
Advise in advance
If you know of an anticipated change in routine, give your child advance notice in order to reduce his anxiety to a manageable level so he can follow coping strategies. The more you do this, the more familiar you’ll become with how early your child needs to know of changes — too much time beforehand will give her more time to become anxious; too little time won’t be enough opportunity to prepare.
 
Self-regulation and self-awareness
As mentioned, use sensory regulation activities at pre-determined intervals throughout the day to help give structure to the day and to allow breaks to prevent becoming overloaded.
 
Teach your child how to increase self-awareness of his emotional state, perhaps by discussing how his engine is running (see here and here for more information on The Alert Program®: “How Does Your Engine Run?”®), and to use other self-regulation techniques such as deep breathing or calming affirmations (“I can handle this. I feel in control.”).
 
Take time to transition
Build time into the day for transitioning between activities, into new environments, etc. Sensory children usually need extra time to switch gears. Redirect her gently if you have to.
 
Create a quiet personal space
If your child does become overstimulated, or seems as if she is about to, you may want to change the environment/setting completely and have him retreat to a quiet space until he’s calmed down. 
 
At home, she should have her own personal space, perhaps a small play tent, alcove or corner, with reduced stimulation. Provide a comfy place to sit, such as a squishy, tactile, beanbag chair, along with a soft blanket and pillow. Light the area with soft, dim lighting that he can control, and supply a few small items such as a fidget toy, squeeze ball, therapy putty, or other item for ‘heavy hand work;’ a piece of ‘Chewelry’ for an oral seeking child; a well-loved book. You may want to include some sort of slow-moving visual stimulation (such as a lava lamp) and/or some soft rhythmic music.
 
When you’re outside you have fewer options, but you can virtually always find a quiet corner to sit. Have your child face a wall, if possible, and position your body so you block distractions. Your child may find it comforting to sit on your lap with your arms around her. Always carry a favorite book with you and either read aloud to your child or have him read quietly on his own until he feels calmer. Offering a fidget toy or piece of ‘Chewelry’ can be helpful too, as is having a sensory snack.
 
 
Looking ahead:
The next post will be a “Practical Backpack” post with simple tips for environmental adaptations, arranged in list format for easy reference.
 
What situations are the most challenging for you and your child to adapt? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
 
 
I look forward to hearing from you!
 
 

All the best,
Miriam

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.