While holiday travels can be stressful for any family, the season presents greater challenges for families of children with sensory processing disorders. Varleisha Gibbs OTD, OTR/L, director of doctoral projects and assistant professor of occupational therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, said attempting to coordinate a child’s sensory, dietary, and energy needs while traveling can make a holiday getaway seem like a full-time job.
“Children with sensory processing disorders have great difficulty figuring out what is going on inside and outside of their bodies,” said Dr. Gibbs. “What may be a simple experience for others can become sensory overload for a child with special needs, and result in the day being ruined by something as simple as an echo in a building.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s holiday periods are among the busiest long-distance travel periods of the year as more than 53 percent of travelers visit their friends and families within this timeframe. In fact, an estimated 25 million passengers will fly over the 12-day Thanksgiving travel period, peaking on Sunday, Dec. 1, when 2.5 million are expected to fly, according to Airlines for America, an industry trade group.
Luckily, Dr. Gibbs said a little preparation can help families avoid sensory meltdowns and uncomfortable situations:
1) Travel at the right time. Schedule your travel times when airports or freeways are least crowded since too many people and too much noise can cause meltdowns among children with sensory disorders. Noise cancelation headphones are also beneficial to help decrease the sound from the environment.
2) Call ahead. Whether you’ll be staying at a hotel or with relatives or friends, call ahead to discuss sleeping arrangements, special dietary requirements, and any other concerns you might have. When choosing a hotel, inquire about building conditions or events that could bother a child with noise sensitivity.
3)Stay on schedule. Children with sensory disorders have a sensory diet they need to adhere to while away from home. For example, if a child is used to jumping trampoline each day, he or she can take a walk around a rest stop or an airport or do jumping jacks.
4) Dress for success. Avoid sensory meltdowns and discomfort by dressing your child in clothing he or she prefers. Some prefer soft clothing, while others like tight fitting, pressure producing clothing. Also, pack sunglasses and ear plugs for those with hypersensitivities to their surroundings.
5) Pack activities. Boredom can be prevented by packing small travel games, books, and art supplies that don’t require batteries. Electronics can lead to meltdowns if they fail to work properly or if the battery runs low. A sensory backpack should include items such as CDs and headphones for their ears, Lego toys for their hands, and chewing gum for their mouths.
6) Avoid sugar. Pack healthy protein-packed and gluten-free snacks so your child stays full and satisfied. High sugar food and drinks can cause a sugar high, resulting in the inevitable sugar crash.
“This holiday season, it’s my hope that all families, particularly those who are impacted by sensory issues, can enjoy stress-free travel simply by planning ahead,” said Dr. Gibbs, who earned her BA in psychology from University of Delaware, MS in occupational therapy from Columbia University in the City of New York, and OTD from Thomas Jefferson University.