Enjoying Community Events with your Sensitive Child

Summer is here and it is time for festivals, fairs and fireworks displays! That sounds like a blast to most folks, but when you have a sensitive child the fun can be touch and go. If your child has a sensory processing disorder, an autism spectrum disorder or simply has a sensitive spirit, you are very aware of his or her unique needs and triggers.

Here are the top three scenarios that you may encounter and some helpful solutions to keep the peace of mind for your little one. Bonus – any of the solutions can be applied to any of the challenges. Mix and match as you like!

The Build Up

Challenge: Your child is anxious about crowds. They express distress at the thought of going to an amusement park or county fair because it is so unpredictable. “I’m scared” and “I don’t want to go” are common statements.

Solution: Write a social story with your child. This means walking through the event in kid friendly language. Practicing the story each day can help make the activity more predictable and predictability for sensitive children equals comfort.

Here is an example of a simple social story. You can look at pictures online, have your older child draw pictures or take some pictures in advance with your phone for illustrations as you practice the script that corresponds with the picture. Do an internet search to see some more examples.

I will have fun at the water park. I will ride in the car. Mom or dad will buy a ticket. We have to wait in lines, but we will get our turn. Other adults and kids will be having fun, too. I will play in the water. I will follow the rules. When it is time to go home, I will change my clothes. We will go back to the car and drive home!

The Boom

Challenge: Your child is scared of loud sounds. Sirens send him into a panic. Fireworks – forget about it! It’s a “fight-flight-freeze” situation when the environment is noisy and he is truly freaking out!

Solution: Try noise cancelling headphones. They are sold at the hardware store in kids’ sizes or you can find them online. If this isn’t realistic, try regular headphones that cover the whole ear and let your child play some calming music or white noise. You can even create your own white noise on the fly by cupping your own hands over your child’s ears and resting your chin on the top of their head while you hum. Believe it or not, chewing gum or drinking from a straw can also help muffle sounds to a degree.

The Bubble

Challenge: Your child thrives with personal space and loses it if someone bumps into them or touches them unexpectedly. Waiting in line is especially difficult. He might even lash out or hit others if his personal bubble is threatened.

Solution: Create a “safe zone” or physical barrier for your child. At a festival, this might be pulling them in a wagon. Bring a pop up tent if you are at a park. Let them wear a backpack when standing in line or push a younger sibling in the stroller — two natural physical “barriers.”  At a music concert, a simple towel or blanket on the lawn can help your child define their own space. Bring an extra sheet or blanket for them to put over their head if they need to create an escape tent. Weather permitting, you may even consider having your child wear snugly fitting clothing, as this can provide calming pressure input. Many sport style shirts, swim shirts or leggings can do the trick. Hats help, too!

There is a lot of summer fun to be had and your sensitive child can be a part of it with a little strategizing and planning. Happy Summer!

Author’s profile: Lisa Helenius is a practicing occupational therapist with over 25 years of pediatric experience. She currently is a partner at Growing Up Therapy. See https://growinguptherapy.com for more information.