Imagine how you feel when you shop in a hot, loud, over-crowded, not so nice smelling mall, while wearing an itchy wool coat at the end of preparing for and hosting a busy holiday party. That is how day to day activities for some children with sensory processing disorder feel. So when they are exposed to the same stimuli that would overload just about anyone, the effects are compounded. This can be lead to ‘sensory overload.’ It is no wonder that temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, difficulty with self calming, distractibility, and an inablitiy to stand in lines are common scenes with many children at malls.
When the question is asked, is it sensory or is it behavior? Reframe the question by asking are there sensory issues driving the behavior? However, use caution, because some behaviors may be learned as a way to avoid or get something, or communicate wants and needs. It is important to learn how to be proactive when offering calming strategies (e.g. giving bear hugs when when your child begins to look disregulated) as opposed to reinforcing negative behavior (e.g. offering a bear hug after he or she hits you).
Keep these strategies in mind when shopping this holiday season, but use them only as tolerated by your child:
1. Find spots in the mall where you and your child can regroup (e.g. quiet hallways without a lot of decorations).
2. Incorporate some deep pressure hugs throughout your shopping day.
3. Have some calming ‘mouth tools’ available (e.g. grab a snack or meal, sip on a water bottlle, bring a child safe chew toy)
4. Take time to smell the flowers…I mean candles in the quiet candle stores with soft music.
5. Give your child some closely supervised movement breaks out of the shopping cart. Even when you are in a hurry and don’t feel you have the time, you may save time in the long run by preventing an outburst later.
6. Give your child some safe ‘hand fidgets’ to fiddle with while riding in a cart or waiting. If they are old enough and able to do so, or allow your child to help you push the cart or carry bags.
7. Put on some snug fitting under garments that offer firm, maintained touch pressure and ‘breathe’ with your child.
8. Shop at less crowded times of the day or season as you are able, and take several short shopping trips over several days, rather than trying to squeeze it all into a couple of long trips.
9. Allow your child to choose and where his or her favorite comfortable clothes and socks.
10.If you are fortunate enough to have some help, bring along an extra hand. Your child may be held by grandma or walk around with her while looking at some pretty decorations, while you stand in the long check out line.
Susan Swindeman, OTR
Adapted from… Tools for Tots: Sensory Strategies for Toddlers and Preschoolers
Henry, Kane-Wineland, Swindeman, 2009