Category Archives: Special Needs

Sensory Processing Disorder & Vacations – 7 Tips To Help Things Go Smoothly

Sensory Processing Disorder

Life with a child who has Sensory Processing Disorder can be stressful, and taking a break to go on vacation is good for everyone. But being away from home brings its own challenges – both in terms of the SPD itself and how you as a parent cope with the “goldfish bowl” aspect of being away, especially if you’re visiting or travelling with friends or extended family.

I recently spent a week sharing a small room on a cruise ship with my 9 year old daughter, 8 year old son (who has Sensory Processing Disorder) and my mother. We had a lovely week (and only the one trip to the ship’s doctor, when J(8) cut his head on a cushion-strewn stone bench).

While we were away, I jotted down some ideas to remind myself how best to make sure future holidays go as smoothly.

1. Manage expectations

Before you leave home, discuss where you’re going and what it’s going to be like. Often we have it all planned in our heads but don’t think of sharing the details with our children. This is fine with most kids, but a child with Sensory Processing Disorder does best if he knows what’s happening.

We homeschool, so I involved both my children in the planning stage for our Norway cruise. You may not want to go into as much detail as we did, but if you’re visiting more than one place, consider making a visual itinerary.

2. Vacation food & SPD Diets

If your child has any special dietary requirements, talk in advance about the kind of food that will be available while you’re away, and consider together how best to manage her dietary needs.

My son does much better on a low sugar, gluten and dairy diet. At home we can accommodate this without him missing out on treats – we make cakes and cookies with gluten free flour and agave, for example. But even if it were possible to follow his diet strictly when we’re away, it would mean both him and his sister (not to mention me) missing out on one of the pleasures of being on vacation – delicious food.

We handled this on the cruise by agreeing to be quite strict at the start of the holiday and to relax as the week went on. It’s easier to go from no dessert to sugar-free ice cream to “Okay, you can have chocolate flavour” and finally to “Yes, with chocolate sauce if you like,” than vice versa!

The effects of the foods to which my son is sensitive are cumulative, so by gradually relaxing the usual rules in this way we can delay the worst of their effects until we’re safely home. Meanwhile, he comes away with happy memories of being able to enjoy vacation treats like other children.

3. Kids’ clubs & other babysitters

Whatever kind of vacation you take, there may be short periods when your child will be looked after by unfamiliar people.

Adults who have no experience of  SPD usually try to reason with a child who is mid-meltdown. This is well-meant, but useless (or worse). Someone who is emotionally flooded is not capable of reason – what they they need is a safe space to calm down.

J(8) was keen to go and play at the kids’ club when we were away. Before I left him there for the first time, I had a chat with the childcare manager. I asked if there was a safe space my son could go to if he needed to calm down, and we showed the space to J(8). (In the event, I found him under a table, but the conversation at least left the manager better prepared – an older child’s meltdown can be a shocking experience if you’re not used to it.)

While they were in the club I provided my children with a two-way radio. Once, at the start of the week, C(9) called on it to let me know her brother was distressed and needed collecting.  Other times J(8) was just able to call to say he’d had enough. Knowing he had control of his situation helped him relax and enjoy the fun and games.

4. Extended family & other bystanders

Parents of special needs children are used to dealing with uncomprehending (and at times judgemental) looks and comments from outsiders. I love Avant Parenting’s recent take on this in Coddling, indulging, nurturing, supporting.

We each develop our own strategies for handling other people’s opinions. Mine is to tune into my heart, hold true to my parenting values, and not allow how I care for my son to be influenced by other people’s negative comments (no matter how well meant).

At a time when my son needs extra support in an unusual environment, I’d rather err on the side of “pandering” to my child, than pandering to the peanut gallery.

5. Sensory Processing Disorder & Siblings

It’s not easy having a brother or sister with Sensory Processing Disorder and vacations can be extra difficult, with more parent time being taken over supporting the SPD child, plus the embarrassment factor of new people witnessing his odd behaviour and meltdowns.

Whenever we’re away I try and find time to spend alone with C(9) without her brother. Even half an hour doing something fun together can go a long way towards making everyone’s vacation better.

Vacations with sensory processing disorder
Mother and daughter “cocktail” hour in the crows’ nest

6. Tools

Take with you any sensory tools and equipment you can fit in, like hand fidgets, aromatherapy oils and headphones. My son used his chew tubes more during the week we were away than he does in a month at home. We’re about to invest in a fabric sensory tunnel to use at home, so in future we might take that too.

Work with what you’ve got – if you’re staying in a hotel with a gym, see if you can borrow a swiss ball to play with. If your child likes swimming, visit the pool as often as possible. (And if your child has vestibular problems, consider a vacation on the sea – I’m sure the rocking motion of our ship helped keep my son regulated!)

7. Video games and other screens

At home, I try and make sure my son takes regular breaks from his DS/Minecraft/the Wii to jump on the trampoline or chill out quietly. When we’re away, I don’t worry about screen time. We do plenty of other activities as part of the holiday, so if he’s calmly relaxing with an iPad or DS the rest of the time, that’s okay. It’s my  vacation too!

taking your spd child on holiday

One of the difficulties with writing about SPD is that it affects each child so differently. My son’s SPD affects primarily his vestibular and proprioceptive systems, plus he has some tactile and auditory issues, though these are not as bad as other cases I’ve read about. As parents of these wonderful, special children, we need all the support we can get. I hope that you find something helpful in what I’ve written. If you do, or if you have any tips to add, I’d love to hear from you.

I wrote most of this sitting by the ship’s pool while we were still away. J(8) and his sister had just gone up to the kids’ club. As I closed my laptop, a woman in her sixties came over and asked “Were those your children?”

“Yes,” I  replied, cautiously.

“We were just saying how beautifully behaved they were!” the woman said.

I may not play to the peanut gallery, but given the timing, I’ll take that as a vote of confidence  – a vacation with your SPD child is not a contradiction-in-terms!

5 Days of Maths Playtime

Living maths fun

I wrote last week about how the excellent book Let’s Play Math inspired me to establish a living maths routine in our homeschool.

So – here’s what our first week of maths playtime looked like.

Day 1 – Discovering the Fibonacci Sequence

Blockhead  the life of fibonacci

We read Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, a gorgeous picture book about the twelfth century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci.

We learned how Fibonacci brought Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe, which had until then been using Roman numerals. Here we paused to talk about place value and how much harder it must have been for kids to do written arithmetic without a zero!

Next we puzzled over Fibonacci’s famous rabbit problem. (In short, if a pair of rabbits has two babies every month, how many rabbits do you have at the end of the year?)

J(8) got overwhelmed and ran off to the trampoline at this point. But I was delighted that C(9) – who also has “if I can’t do it perfectly straight away, I’m outta here” tendencies – stayed with the puzzle long enough to spot the pattern which gives us the Fibonacci Series.  (J(8) will be ready for this level of engagement and reasoning in his own time!)

Day 2 – Fibonacci Numbers in Nature

We’d read in Blockhead how the Fibonacci Series is found throughout nature, so on our walks for the rest of the week we looked for examples.

Most daisies, for example, have thirty-four petals (a Fibonacci number).

(Top tip: don’t split the petals, thinking they’re two. The first time I counted fifty-nine. Next daisy, I carefully kept each petal intact and I got thirty-four exactly.)

fibonacci daisy
34 petals

Daisies have 13 (easier to count) sepals (another Fibonacci number).

fibonacci daisy petals
13 daisy sepals, and Fibonacci spirals in the middle, too
fibonacci flowers for kids
Lesser Celandine have eight – Fibonacci number! – petals

Fibonacci numbers are found in so many places besides plants – they crop up everywhere, from fine art, to galaxies, to pineapples. What a lot we still have to explore!

Day 3 – KenKen Puzzles: Arithmetic and Logic Practice

KenKen – Japanese for “cleverness” – is an arithmetic logic puzzle invented by a Japanese maths teacher.  It’s a similar to Sudoku but the digits in each mini-grid combine together to make a given number, using prescribed operation signs.  Hard to explain but once you’ve done one or two you get it!

Kenken math playtime
A KenKen puzzle

We downloaded the free KenKen iPad/iPhone app, which allows you to start with very easy puzzles using just addition and the numbers 1-3. I can see this providing hours of maths fact practice!

Day 4 – Pattern Blocks: Exploring Symmetry and Tessellations

Let’s Play Math suggests investing in manipulatives that are, among other things, strew-able. Pattern blocks have definitely passed that test this week.

pattern blocks living math fun

Pattern blocks  give kids the chance to explore pattern building, geometric shapes, tessellation, symmetry and all that other mathematical stuff in an open-ended way. I’m looking forward to looking at these concepts in greater depth over the course of our maths playtimes.

pattern blocks living maths fun


pattern blocks living maths fun
C(9) made many small designs …


pattern blocks living maths fun
… while J(8) took time creating a few large patterns


pattern blocks living maths fun
You can make pictures, too!

Day 5 – Story Problems

This was the simplest day in terms of set-up, and perhaps the most fun, which came as a welcome surprise to me. All we needed was a portable whiteboard and our imaginations (and a bit of patience waiting for J(8) to finish each of his long complicated stories!).

We took turns, and I think the children learned at least as much from setting me problems (and watching me work through them out loud and on the whiteboard) as they did solving them.

living math fun

Here are some of the problems we came up with:

Story problem I started with

“If our puppy Harvey can skateboard at 5 metres per second, and the playground of our home ed centre is 20 metres long, how long would it take Harvey to skate from one end to the other?”

Story Problem by C(9) 

(Who has recently been caring for her first flowering pot plant.) “If you water a plant every day, it grows one new flower every three hours. But you only water it every other day, so it grows half the number of flowers. How many flowers does it grow in a fortnight?”

Story Problem by J(8)

[Brace yourself.] “A man digs a hole 5 metres deep in 24 hours. If he sleeps 12 hours a night and has two 11 minute tea-breaks a day, how deep is the hole after 10 years?”

[I gave you the condensed version. The digging man (an escaping convict?!) ended up doing so many other things, we lost track. Once we’d negotiated relevant facts,  I gamely worked out how far into the Earth’s core the man had burrowed.]

living maths fun
Space hopper maths – perfect for a child with Sensory Processing issues! (Though not so good for photos)

Verdict on Week One

We enjoyed each of our maths playtime sessions SO MUCH.

In addition to our living maths, J(8) also asked me to read Life of Fred: Goldfish to him every day. We worked buddy style through the questions at the end of each chapter.

There was also a lot of spontaneous maths play – and not just by the children!

living math fun

So where are we going with this?

My goals for this term are for C(9) and J(8) to play with maths concepts, have fun with numbers and discover a bit of maths history.

My role will be to strew interesting materials, make suggestions, read aloud and – most importantly – observe. I love quietly playing detective, noticing what each child is drawn to, what comes naturally, and what might benefit from more practice playtime.

By the end of term in July I’ll have a lot more information about how the maths playtime approach is going.  Then we’ll talk over our experiences and take it from there.

I’ll post more about our maths playtimes soon.

Want to find out more?

Fabulous Fibonacci

My Let’s Play Math Pinterest Board


Homegrown Learners


5 Days of Maths Playtime

Homeschool Language Arts for the Dyslexic and Dysgraphic Child

handiwriter - homeschooling dyslexia & dysgraphia at navigating by joy

Our homeschool language arts curriculum has changed a little since we discovered that Jasper (7) has mild dyslexia, dysgraphia and fine motor delays. We’ve always had a fairly relaxed homeschooling style, but knowing more about how Jasper’s brain works has allowed us to use the most appropriate tools to bring out his best.

Assessment and Diagnosis

Jasper rarely reads books for pleasure or writes voluntarily. I’ve never been too concerned – he’s only seven, and I know enough about the development of boys’ brains to trust that this will change with time.  In the meantime, I knew he was busy developing other other skills.

Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

We took Jasper to see an educational psychologist because we wanted to know how best to leverage the small amount of time we spend doing structured homeschooling with him. The psychologist gave us useful insights into his relative strengths and weaknesses. (I see these as a snapshot of his current development, not set in stone.  The brain is more like plastic.) She assessed Jasper as having “mild dyslexic and possibly dysgraphic markers”, and recommended a number of resources specifically tailored to his learning needs.

Sensory Processing Disorder

I had suspected for a few months that Jasper had Sensory Processing Disorder, and this was confirmed in September by an assessment with a paediatric occupational therapist.  Sensory Processing Disorder has many manifestations – the biggest challenge Jasper faces is emotional self-regulation. But SPD also tends to bring with it with motor delays – mostly, in Jasper’s case, fine motor delays.

General Approach

The psychologist and occupational therapist recommended a little-and-often approach to help improve Jasper’s reading and writing. He is having occupational therapy (daily, at home, and weekly with a therapist) to help with his sensory integration and motor function. Because these skills act as a foundation to all higher level functioning, including academic learning, it makes sense for now to focus most of our efforts here.



Despite his mild dyslexia, Jasper’s reading comprehension age was assessed at more than three years ahead of his chronological age (thank you, Dennis the Menace and Zelda!). This type of dyslexia is sometimes described as “stealth dyslexia” because it so often goes undiagnosed in bright kids.

Toe by Toe - homeschooling dyslexia at navigating by joyToe by Toe
 describes itself as a “highly structured multi-sensory reading manual”. It requires no preparation, you just sit down together and follow the format each day. The pages are black and white, clear, and un-busy, and as it’s designed for all ages (including adults) it doesn’t patronise. As a visual-spatial learner with a good memory, Jasper has always relied on sight-word reading. I knew from hearing him read aloud at poetry teas that he lacked the skills to decode more complex new words, but he’d always strongly resisted any phonics coaching. That is, until we found Toe by Toe.

Phonics rules are introduced and thoroughly practised, and each word has to earn three ticks over three consecutive sessions before it is considered mastered. Phonics concepts are practised using both real and nonsense words – it’s the latter that seem really to cement the learning.

homeschooling dyslexic child - navigating by joy

Toe by Toe suggests sessions of up to 20 minutes a day. We do six minutes. I might increase this as Jasper gets older, but we’ve been using the programme for just a few months and are already a quarter through so that may not be necessary.

The other day I snapped this picture of him not only reading a book, but doing so on a car journey next to a bag of electronic games devices!


Thanks to several years of Handwriting Without Tears, Jasper’s handwriting is neat and legible.  The problem is, outside of his handwriting sessions, he never writes! The process is just too effortful for him. The occupational therapist told us that because of his sensory processing issues and fine motor delays, he’s having to use big, tiring muscles to write, whereas those of us who’ve developed what’s known as automaticity in writing use smaller muscles.

One of the ways we’re addressing this is by using a handiwriter to encourage Jasper to hold his pencil in the correct position. Although I had shown him how to do this many times, I had come to wonder if maybe there was no “correct” grip and that children should be left to hold a pencil however they please.  But if working on a new grip is going to make writing easier for Jasper, I’ll do what it takes to encourage him.

Write from the Start - Homeschooling the Dyslexic and Dysgraphic ChildThe educational psychologist we saw recommended Write from the Start, “a unique programme to develop the fine motor and perceptual skills necessary for effective handwriting”. The books are full of simple exercises like drawing the spines on a dragon’s back, which Jasper does with enthusiasm. Write from the Start leads onto cursive handwriting so we’ve skipped ahead to Handwriting Without Tears – Cursive Handwriting.  Jasper happily does a page a day, after Write From the Start.


The psychologist emphasised the importance of Jasper learning to type well and recommended Nessy Fingers, an inexpensive programme designed for dyslexic students. Cordie (9), (who does not have dyslexia) also enjoys using Nessy more than the other typing programmes we’ve tried (Type to Learn 4 and the free BBC Dance Mat Typing).

Creative Writing and Other Subjects

Of course, there’s more to language arts than reading and writing.  One of the many advantages of homeschooling is that delays in reading and writing don’t have to hold a child back in other subjects or from having fun with language.

Jasper can dictate stories, poems and emails to me, and ask me to write down or spell search terms. I don’t put pressure on him to write or spell for himself outside our dedicated sessions. I want him to feel the joy of expressing himself, of seeing his words recorded, unhampered by the fact that other skills haven’t fully developed yet.

I act as Jasper’s scribe when he writes history or science notebooking pages. His French teacher (who has two dyslexic sons) lets him to play or draw in their lessons while his sister writes. He learns the parts of speech playing Mad Libs.  He relishes participating in poetry tea, a superb natural opportunity for reading aloud to an audience. He grabs pencil and paper to writes plans, treasure maps and notes to himself, uninhibited by worries about what other people will think. His favourite game is Consequences; it didn’t bother any of us that for years every character he invented was called “poo” 😀 . He’s listened to many, many audiobooks, including the complete Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. He’s enjoying language; the skills will come.

How has a Dyslexia Diagnosis Changed Our Homeschooling?

Having Jasper assessed and diagnosed with mild dyslexia and sensory processing disorder hasn’t much changed how we homeschool. When you spend every day with your child, you understand him better than anyone. I’ve always known it was important to trust Jasper to develop at his own pace.

Each of us comes as a unique package.  The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain offers an incredible insight into what the dyslexic mind is capable of (I can’t recommend it highly enough).  We don’t try to make babies to sit, crawl or walk before they’re ready.  We trust that they are born with everything they need to develop at the exact right pace for them. Let’s trust our older children to do the same.

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