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sunscreen for tactile defensiveNo one wants their little ones to suffer the harsh experience of a sun burn – and we want to protect our children from the horrors of skin cancer. When you have a child with any type of ism, especially one who is tactile defensive, protecting your child from the sun becomes an added challenge.

“Sunscreen is quite a challenge for many parents with children who have sensory processing disorders, especially those with sensory defensiveness. Children challenged by tactile sensory input often do not perceive touch accurately, therefore something like light or unexpected touch can actually be perceived as everything from irritating to painful to anxiety producing.”, shares Rae Suba, OTR/L of Childs Play OT.

The Sun Safety Alliance offers a variety of recommendations such as being mindful that the sun is at its strongest 10a – 4p, wear a wide brimmed hat, apply sunscreen to children with at least 30 SPF and find shade as much as possible.  Another suggestion before you head outdoors this summer, is to determine the UV index in your area. The EPA has a free checker and a free downloadable app.  The UV Index is a measurement of sun radiation risk with 1 being low risk and 11 being the most high risk.

Summer Protective Attire

To avoid or minimize sunscreen battles, explore a variety of clothing options with SPF protection such as rash guards  and hats.  Long sleeve rash guards offer the most protection, and even if you go with the short sleeve option, there is less skin that is going to need sunscreen slathered upon it.  A snug rash guard may offer a bit of proprioceptive input as well.

Hats with a nice brim on them can keep the ears and face protected when not in the water.  However, some children just can’t stand a hat on their little heads.  But even more, can’t stand the feel of sunscreen slathered on their ears, nose and cheeks.

Spray Sunscreen

Many parents found a solution to this dilemma by using spray sunscreens.  However, last year, all over the news were warnings that spray sun screens are not safe for small children because of the inhalation risks.

Wendy Kenzell, MS, OTR/L of Providing Choice additionally advises, “Choose options for sun protection that will match your child’s needs. If a child gets upset with sounds nobody notices, then the spray bottle of sun tan lotion might not be your best option.”

If you opt to go with the spray bottle route and if your child is able to follow directions – before spraying, have them close their eyes and mouth, hold their breath and then spray in a light burst.  Immediately after spraying, encourage them to run 5-10 feet away before they can breathe again – turn it into a fun game by having them run to get a fun toy and bring it back.  If your child is not able to follow these directions, away from the children spray the sunscreen on your finger tip and dab on their ears, nose and cheeks.  Spray sunscreens are thinner than most lotions and may be more tolerable to those who are sensory defensive.

If you opt for a lotion, a wonderful lotion that does not leave behind a thick yucky residue that the sensory defensive’s absolutely abhor is Naked Bee Sunscreen Products.  The Naked Bee is an excellent alternative.  The Orange Blossom Honey Moisturizing Sunscreen is an SPF 30 lotion that contains organic honey and Vitamin C.  Additionally, it’s free of Oxybenzone or Octinoxate, Proplylene glycol, mineral oil, Paraben and Paba.  Some children love the scent, while others may be turned off.  Read further for a tip to help sensitive sniffers.

Create Predictability with Sunscreen Lotion

Kenzell believes in the importance of creating predictability around the concept of applying sunscreen lotion.  Kenzell advises the plan and play approach.

“Plan by creating and reading a social story about the importance of sunscreen application.  Create a social story using the Social Story Creator app demonstrating that where the sun light lands on the skin, the skin needs to have something covering it so it won’t hurt. If something is covering the skin when you are in the sun, then the skin stays healthy and happy.”  Additionally, some fun children’s books include:

Ashley’s Ultraviolet Adventures

Hey, Don’t Forget the Sunscreen!

Play by having the child apply suntan lotion on you (trying the different kinds you have available). Teach the child where the suntan lotion needs to be applied.

Take pictures of people on your phone, and ‘finger’ rub the lotion on their exposed skin with an app like Doodle Buddy.  Wrap the play in language, identifying the body parts, and the action of ‘rubbing it all in.’

Get Kids Sensory Ready

Gwen Wild, OTR/L of Sensational Brain recommends getting kids sensory ready.  “Prior to application, have kids get some sea-themed proprioceptive input by crab-walking or “wave” rolling. This type of input inhibits tactile sensitivity.”

Suba suggests sensory readiness as well, “Some of the best ways to help these children better modulate & cope in these situations is to make sure that all of your touch is expected and applied with firm pressure.”

Before applying the sunscreen, Wild suggests, “Have children apply “invisible sunscreen” by rubbing their arms and legs briskly.”  While Suba recommends, “applying rhythmic deep pressure in the form of squeezes and hugs down your child’s trunk arms and legs first as this helps to negate some of the irritation they may already be feeling before you even begin.”

Kenzell is on board with sensory preparation as well, “Get some deep pressure through the body before applying anything – rub down arms, legs and back with a towel, have the child wind in and out the beach towel by rolling, or use the Willbarger Protocol brushing system on the legs, arms, feet, hands and back.”

Learn more about the importance of proprioceptive input on tactile defensiveness in Tactile Defensive? Start with the Other Senses.

Applying Sunscreen Lotion 

Suba advises, “While sitting at the child’s eye level, in plain view with your touch expected, apply a thin layer of greaseless sunscreen (Naked Bee as above) in deep, firm rhythmic strokes from top to bottom (as not to further stimulate the light touch receptors associated with the hair cells). Proceed down their arms and legs trying to always keep one hand firmly on the skin as a grounding contact.”

During the sunscreen application, Wild advises distraction techniques such as. “sing a song or ask kids to spell some words as having something to think about will reduce over-reactions.”

Kenzell tells us, “Don’t be a mosquito that lifts and lands.  Place a pile of lotion on your forearm, so you don’t have to stop, lift both hands and get more lotion.”  This technique will make Suba’s suggestion much easier.

For Sensitive Sniffers

Wild suggests, “Some kids are bothered by the smell of sunscreen. Try a few different kinds and see if one is more tolerable than others. Alternatively, rub a little bit of a favorite-smelling chapstick on the tip of the child’s nose to override the smell of the sunscreen.”

Oops, You Missed a Spot

Even with all the protection mentioned here, there is always a chance that you miss a spot and now despite all your best efforts, your little one has a dreaded sunburn.  If this does happen, be sure you have a batch of Sunburn Relief Remedy in your fridge.  Kids love making up this remedy and it is a cooling solution that draws the heat out of the burn restoring the skin’s acid balance.

All you need is black tea and a bit of mint.  Applied with cotton balls, the black tea is what draws the heat from the burn and restores the skin’s acid balance.  The mint helps to cool the skin.

Recipe for Sunburn Relief Remedy

Take 4 cups of boiling water and pour over 2 cups of fresh mint leaves.
Add 4 black tea bags.
Cover for 10 minutes.
Cool, then transfer to a glass jar.
Place in refrigerator. Good for a few weeks.

This may seem like an awful lot of work and effort for applying sun screen this summer, but in the end, it can spare you from a day full of sensory overload meltdowns.  Avoid sunscreen battles and cover as much as you can with SPF clothing, create predictability with social stories and role play, and ensure your little one gets the proprioceptive input they need in advance of applying sun screen lotion.


“Sun Safety Tips.” Sun Safety Alliance. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2015.

Vidosevic, Tania A., B.A. “USING A BEHAVIORAL TREATMENT PACKAGE TO TEACH TOLERANCE TO SKIN CARE PRODUCTS TO A CHILD WITH AUTISM: A SYSTEMATIC REPLICATION.Research in Developmental Disabilities (2009): 585-98. UNT Digital Library. Univerity of Texas. Web. 5 June 2015.

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An “Ism” is our coined term synonymous with a “challenge”. Many children, with or without a diagnostic label, experience various challenges throughout their developmental years which are impacting them in the classroom and at home. At Special-Ism, the Ism is our focus. We do not look at the diagnostic label, instead, we look at the Isms and offer solutions no matter the diagnosis.