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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!

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