As many states continue to pause their reopening plans due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, so many parents, particularly those with special needs children, are once again feeling like the world has been turned upside down. Routines are broken, resources are no longer available, the structure and social supports of school are gone. All the hard work you’ve done to set your child up for success in class, in enrichment activities, with peer groups and friends—it’s all out the window.
We all know that sensory regulation is key to your child’s ability to self-regulate and that tending proactively to sensory issues can be a game changer. Remember, the deregulation and processing issues you’re seeing now are not new—you’ve managed them before, pre-COVID, and you have the tools to tackle them now, even with diminished support from the outside world. How can you recreate those supports in your home, with your resources, in a way that is only dependent on you? It’s time to dust off your old set of tools, roll up your sleeves, and rebuild.
Take stock of what’s been lost due to COVID-related closures.
- Your child may no longer be spending time in certain physical spaces—not just classrooms, but also gyms, swimming pools, and playgrounds. Because many families rely on school or public access to these spaces, some of your child’s favorite physical or stimulating activities might not be available to her.
- Your child may no longer be experiencing clear, multi-sensory transitions from one space or activity to another, such as hearing a bell to start and end each class or having time to recenter on the walk home from school. This can have a negative effect on her ability to manage her own activities and perceive the passage of time.
- Your child may not be receiving the same amount of “social practice” and real-time feedback from friends and classmates. Similarly, she may not be receiving the kinds of personalized coaching, behavioral reinforcement, and social guidance provided by highly trained teachers, coaches, and counselors.
- Finally, everyone in the family may be experiencing frustration and confusion as they are forced to adapt to new tasks, roles, and responsibilities. Parents used to working full-time and managing mostly weekends and after school routines are now finding themselves solely responsible for round-the-clock childcare, teaching, and housekeeping. Siblings used to seeing each other for only a couple hours a day are now forced to be constant companions and playmates.
Commit some time to re-learning your child’s sensory profile.
- Identify the places, situations, and tasks where your child tends to struggle. Is she distracted by lights or loud noises? Does she panic when asked to give a friend or family member a hug? Does she gag when trying new foods? (Check out our ongoing Sensory Spotlight series for more on how to identify and support sensory sensitivities.)
- Pay attention to how your child’s deregulation manifests. Is she constantly seeking your attention, even if it’s negative? Does she become withdrawn and anxious when overwhelmed? Is her bedtime routine a struggle every single night?
- Get input from your child about what she needs and prefers throughout the day. When possible, give her choices about the way she performs certain tasks or the order in which she completes each step in a larger process. Let her decide whether she does her homework at the kitchen table or the desk in her room, the order in which she performs her bedtime routine, or the activities she does during quiet time.
- Work on creating good transition habits and pay careful attention to how your child’s sensory processing can affect her ability to move smoothly from one activity to another. See our previous article on building good transitions for tips.
Work on integrating more sensory experiences into your everyday life.
- Have your child help with household chores that have a sensory component. Sweeping the floor and sorting laundry have a strong visual component. Cooking incorporates many different textures, smells, and tastes. Even something as simple as carrying in grocery bags can provide the pressure craved by proprioceptive and tactile seekers.
- If you’re able and feel comfortable, take your child along on trips to the grocery store or other small errands. Bright lights, busy environments, and new sounds and smells can be great for visual, olfactory, and auditory seekers.
- Get creative with your play. Matching, category, and “same or different” games with toys or other household items are great for children with discrimination issues. Take an afternoon and build forts, Lego cities, or even your own sensory table. Play soccer, catch, or frisbee to work on proprioception and hand/eye coordination.
- If your child needs more help with regulation and stimulation, consider contacting an occupational therapist and asking about incorporating a Sensory Diet—a regimented, highly personalized set of physical activities that your child can do at home. (Learn more here.)