In Traveling with a Sensory Seeking Child we explored strategies to support your child on vacation if he or she is a sensory seeker, but what if your child is sensitive, more of a sensory avoider? Successful travel with your sensitive child is possible if you make a few minor adjustments.
Some children have nervous systems that are easily overwhelmed. They may demonstrate sensory defensiveness and/or poor sensory regulation/modulation. As a result, careful planning is needed to make a vacation successful.
Establish Familiar Routines
Children with sensory defensiveness benefit from predictability and familiarity. To ensure successful travel with your sensitive child, establish a routine to the days. In thinking about the day’s activities, less is typically better.
If you are using sensory supports such as deep pressure protocol, sensory diet, or therapeutic listening, continue these and ask your child’s occupational therapist if any adjustments should be made to the program you are currently implementing.
Pack favorite clothes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste. Remember sunglasses and hat for outdoor activities. Ear plugs or sound-occluding headphones may be helpful.
Don’t Push Interactions with Relatives
For many children, visiting people they don’t know very well is overwhelming. Think about the potential for overwhelm:
- people wanting to hug and kiss them
- people who want to pick them up
- people who may be loud
- houses that may smell funny
- food that is different from what they are used to
For successful travel with your sensitive child, let your relatives know what works for you child. Communicate with relatives to ensure that your child’s need for space is not seen as a reflection on whether or not they like that person.
- Let your child initiate any physical interaction
- Establish a safe, quiet place your child can retreat to as needed
- Bring familiar items (toys, music, books, foods, pillow, blanket) to make sleeping, playing, and eating comfortable
Plan for Down Time
Remember that even when your child is having a good time, it can still be draining on their nervous systems. They require some quiet time to recoup.
If touring a busy city, find a quiet place to eat, go back to the hotel room or play in a park for a while. Giving a sensitive child time to regroup can help them manage themselves better and reduce/prevent meltdowns.
Honor Your Child’s Perceptions
While it can be frustrating to parents, when children react negatively to experiences that are generally perceived as being fun, it is important to recognize that their reactions are based on how their nervous system perceives the experience.
To keep the fun going while you travel with your sensitive child, listen to your child and modify your plans. While it is fine to expose your child to new experiences and gently encourage their participation, be careful not to force your child to engage in an activity that for them is at best uncomfortable and at worse triggers a fight/flight/fright/freeze response.
For some children, the beach is overwhelming:
- the sand
- splashing, cold, salty water
- hot sun
- lots of people
For some children, movement is frightening:
- going on rides, esp. roller coasters
- keep it simple and low-keyed.
Vacations that May Work Well for Your Sensitive Child
Vacations that are successful will vary tremendously from one child to the next, but here are a couple of options.
Vacation at home
Build your vacation around day trips. This option will allow your child the security of returning to the comfort and familiarity of home each night.
Establish a home base at a cabin, motel, etc. Consider children’s museums, zoos, aquariums, and parks. Take your time and be flexible. Be ready to change if a destination does not work out.
Go in the off-season, mid-week if possible. Consider, smaller regional parks.
All parks offer a variety of experiences. Pick those that are low-key and geared to your child’s interests if possible.
If you do make the Disney trip, ask your doctor for a medical release to obtain a Guest Assistance Card, so that you can avoid waiting in long lines.