Traveling with Children: Supporting your Sensory Systems

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With a long year behind us, and exciting holiday plans approaching, tantrums, meltdowns, and restrictive behaviours are the last thing we want to look forward to as we enter the holiday season.

Between the start of your journey and the much-needed break, for both you and your children, may be one or more of the following “in-betweeners”-

  1. Airports
  2. Aeroplane flights
  3. Car rides

For both you as the parent, and children with sensory difficulties/sensitivities, the “in-betweeners” can make holiday time tiring, emotionally draining, and stressful. Whether your child has a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder or not, considering the sensory systems of both you and your child is a good start in preparing for a long journey, and supporting a calmer, less restrictive nervous system.

A supported nervous system can assist in decreasing meltdowns, unreasonable anxiety, stress, and restrictive behaviours. Due to the direct connection between the nervous system and sensory processing, as an Occupational Therapist, I figure the sensory systems are a good place to start when preparing for your successful holiday.

The Sensory Experience Of Each “In-Betweener”

The sensory systems have been broken up into 5 categories, with possible sensory-rich experiences listed for each sensory system.

It is important to note that each person can respond to these sensory experiences differently, finding them either alerting, calming or neutral. In order to explore your and your children’s sensory profiles in more detail, please contact your occupational therapist.

The aim of this section is to expand our outlook on the amount of sensory input that is possibly experienced during each “in-betweener”: 

VISUAL

The following can stimulate the visual system:

In the Airport

  • Lights (depending on day/night)
  • Advertising boards
  • Moving people in different directions
  • Unknown machines (luggage belts, scanners)
  • Aeroplanes landing/taking off
  • Smaller children  see a world from their height e.g. waist height or shorter/taller

In the Aeroplane:

  • Long tunnels to entrance/stairs to entrance
  • Unknown people talking and looking at you, sitting next to you Confined spaces with lots of activity around them
  • Window seat/ Aisle seat
  • TV screens/buttons/levers

In the Car:

  • Moving scenery outside the window (link to motion sickness)
  • Rented car or own car (unfamiliar vs. familiar visuals)
  • New environments during stops
  • Games on tablets, reading books, or nothing (link to motion sickness)
  • Tunnels? Darkness vs. sunlight
  • Driving at night vs. day time
  • Sitting at the front or back of the car (perspective)

AUDITORY

The following can stimulate the auditory system:

In the Airport:

  • Announcements (“attention all passengers” / “hold handle and get ready to push trolley”)
  • People talking in different languages
  • Music
  • Hand dryer in bathrooms

In the Aeroplane:

  • Music
  • Announcements
  • Music/TV noise
  • Sound of the fan above
  • Toilet flushing
  • Other people and children in the plane

In the Car:

  • Radio or no radio
  • Sound of the car running
  • Sounds of cars outside
  • Sounds at different stops – music, people, silence

TACTILE

The following can stimulate the tactile system:

In the Airport:

  • Standing in queues
  • Bumping into things
  • Being patted down by security
  • Carpets/cold tiles/airport chairs
  • Aircon/fan
  • Temperature (Hot/cold/just right)

In the Aeroplane:

  • Tight spaces to squeeze through
  • A confined seating area, people are close
  • Brushing of people passing you in the aisle seat
  • Textures of food
  • Textures of the seat, texture/size of the toilet seat
  • Textures of clothes worn for long periods of time
  • Temperature (Hot/cold/just right)
  • High altitude equals dry air (dehydration)

In the Car:

  • Rented car or own car (unfamiliar vs. familiar)
  • Aircon, open window
  • Texture of seats
  • Spaced seating or next to a person
  • Temperature (Hot/cold/just right)
  • Seat belt

BODY MOVEMENT (PROPRIOCEPTION & VESTIBULAR INPUT )

The following can stimulate the movement systems:

In the Airport:

  • Walking/Running/Trolley Rides
  • Climbing Stairs/Lifts/Elevators
  • Being pulled by parent
  • Carrying a backpack or other luggage
  • Riding in the car to get to the airport
  • Sitting/Standing

In the Aeroplane:

  • Climbing into/out of seats
  • Sitting for long periods of time
  • Difficulty lying down
  • Little space to move around
  • Take off and landing/ Turbulence
  • Airsickness (motion sickness)

In the Car:

  • Climbing in and out of the car
  • Walking in environments when parked
  • Car moving forward/backward/turning
  • Space to move the body in the car
  • Space to move around when outside the car
  • Restriction of seat belt
  • Car sickness (motion sickness)

SMELL AND TASTE

The following can stimulate the smell and taste systems:

In the Airport:

  • Familiar vs. Unfamiliar tastes and smells
  • Different restaurants
  • Lots of people (perfumes and body odours)
  • Public bathrooms

In the Aeroplane:

  • Body odours, over a prolonged period of time
  • Disinfectant and chemicals
  • Airplane food choice
  • Before take-off spray in the cabin
  • Unfamiliar foods and their effect on digestion and health
  • Airsickness

In the Car:

  • Familiar vs. Unfamiliar smells
  • Changing environments
  • Home brought food or restaurants
  • Car sickness

Top Tips for Making Good Use of Our Sensory Systems While Travelling

Strategies to help calm our sensory systems:

  1. Wear a heavy backpack
  2. Play with a fidget toy
  3. Do a fine motor activity (e.g. colouring)
  4. Sip a thick smoothie through a straw
  5. Listen to calming music
  6. Do some yoga stretches and deep breathing
  7. Chew gum
  8. Give/receive firm hugs
  9. Sit somewhere with dim lighting and less people
  10. Take a slow, quiet walk, or take a slow ride on the airport trolley

Strategies to help awaken our sensory systems:

  1. Go for a brisk walk through the airport
  2. Spend sometime outside in the fresh air
  3. Turn on the lights or sit in a brightly lit area
  4. Turn up the music in the car
  5. Open the car window or turn up the air conditioning
  6. Eat strong flavoured foods with varied textures
  7. Stand rather than sit (where possible)
  8. Take a fast ride in the airport trolley, or pull wheeled luggage
  9. Play eye-spy or count the number of a certain object or colour
  10. Play on playground equipment

Here are a few tips for supporting each sensory system before and during the traveling phase of your holiday.

Other Helpful Tips:

  • Planning and Preparation! Start preparing yourself, your family and children for the upcoming travels about 3 months before-hand. Discuss the holiday during dinner or while driving to school.
  • Have a visual calendar up and count down the days together.
  • Good sleep: Try and keep to the usual sleep and wake routine, before and during the traveling phase.
  • Good, healthy food: Traveling is taxing on the body and therefore it needs all the nutrients it can get. Less healthy food can be eaten when you are relaxed and stress-free.
  • Staying Hydrated
  • Organise activities to bring along e.g. reading material, colouring-in books, card games, etc.
  • Flexibility: Planning is great, but be open to changes. Travelling is stressful enough, try to take things that are uncontrollable in your stride.
  • A Good Attitude: Children take their cues from their parents. If you appear ok and ‘in control’, the more ok and controlled they feel. If old enough, create an opportunity for each child to express their excitement and fears about the trip.
  • Bring along a Sensory Travel Kit (please see resource below).

Videos to watch before going on a flight:

Stop, Screen, Go

What it’s like to be on an aeroplane

Helpful Resources:

Sensory Solutions for traveling in the car (including how to decrease motion sickness): https://www.yourkidsot.com/blog/sensory-solutions-for-travelling-in-the-car

How to make a sensory travel kit: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/how-to-make-a-sensory-travel-kit-for-your-child

Avoid travel meltdowns: https://www.understood.org/en/family/events-outings/family-travel/10-tips-to-help-kids-with-sensory-processing-issues-avoid-travel-meltdowns

Life can be unpredictable no matter how much we plan and prepare. It is also impossible to control all sensory experiences, especially if you have more than one child, as well as your own sensory systems to take into consideration. However, awareness is always key because it opens your eyes to what could happen and the possible ways to support the nervous system in the best way possible.

Enjoy the preparation, learn from past experiences and have a wonderful holiday!

Author: Kaydee Nell

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