Planning a Family Vacation for Children with Sensory Sensitivities
Preparation is Key When Traveling with Children Who Have Sensory Issues
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that causes children to react negatively to unwanted stimuli. It can take the form of hypersensitivity (being too sensitive to stimuli, like loud noises) and hyposensitivity (being under-sensitive to stimuli, like having a poor pain response).
Vacationing in the summer with children who are prone to sensory meltdowns may seem like a stressful undertaking, but with a bit of planning and flexibility, any family vacation can be an enjoyable time for all.
Lay the Groundwork
Planning a family vacation for sensory sensitivities requires an appropriate level of preparation. For many SPD children, it’s helpful to discuss the entire trip’s itinerary beforehand. Walking children through each day of the trip, along with anticipated stressful moments, can mitigate some of that stress with familiarity. If the child is old enough to self-regulate, it can be particularly helpful for parents to suggest regulating activities associated with expected stressors, like planning books or movies to cope with a plane trip.
Be Strategic With Food Choices
Food is an important component of many sensory integration care plans, but it’s also important to make a vacation a treat when possible.
Older children can often participate in mutual planning to stick with the nutrition routine except for predetermined points when they’ll be allowed to “break the rules.” However, younger children usually require strategic decisions from the parent, like a plan to adhere to “at-home” rules at the start of a trip, then gradually introducing off-plan treats as the vacation progresses.
Carry a Sensory Toolkit
Parents should always carry a backpack or satchel containing regulating and soothing items, along with snacks and simple diversionary entertainments. When children are old enough to self-regulate, it can be especially helpful to give them their own kit, which they can use as needed to cope with vacation stressors.
Be Straightforward With Caregivers
Whether it’s relatives brought along to help out or third-party caregivers, like play area attendants, taking a break from direct parental supervision can be a relaxing respite for both parent and child. It’s important for parents to discuss all sensory concerns with caregivers beforehand, including plans for how to respond if the child has a breakdown or needs to be removed from a situation. Cell phones or simple two-way radios are a convenient way to let parents be called back immediately, when necessary.
Be Ready to Revert to Routine
A key component of SPD vacations is a willingness to revert to the routine when called for. Rather than “forcing the fun,” parents should always be ready to retreat to a hotel room or pre-scouted respite if regulating activities aren't enough.