Sensory struggles during the winter months

Sensory Struggles in Winter

Winter is here! For many of us, winter is a time of outdoor play, indoor coziness, and creating memories with family and friends. However, winter can bring a whole new set of challenges and for families with sensory needs.

This month, we’re taking a look at some common sensory struggles in winter and offer a few suggestions for keeping your child regulated, engaged, and safe during the cold months. Have another tip? Let us know in the comments!

Challenge #1 – Outdoor Winter Activities

Winter games like sledding, ice skating, and playing in the snow are generally great for seekers, particularly: tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive. However, children with sensitivities and discrimination issues often struggle with these activities.

Proprioceptive and tactile avoiders may be unable to tolerate cold wind on their faces, fast movement, or being close to other children. Visual avoiders may become overwhelmed by the glare of snow and ice. Finally, those with vestibular, proprioception and visual discrimination disorders may have difficulty walking on snow or ice and keeping a safe distance from other children. 

Tips and Tricks:

  • Ease your child into new activities. Hold his hand and practice walking on ice and snow, slowly pull him around the yard in a sled, and help him pack snowballs.
  • Practice new or scary activities at home. Skate on the kitchen floor in your socks, have a snowball fight with socks or stuffed animals, or race to put on your snow gear.
  • Break down overwhelming or scary activities into small, manageable steps. (“First we sit on the sled, second we push, and third we lean back and ride.”)
  • Experiment with outdoor games and activities that don’t require being in close proximity to others, such as geocaching, Pokemon Go, or simply making snow angels.
  • Be mindful of seeking behavior in activities like sledding, skiing, and ice skating. If your child is being unsafe, try to figure out the sensation he’s craving and help him find other ways to achieve it.
  • Wear sunglasses or baseball hats to reduce glare from ice and snow.

Challenge #2 – Winter Clothing and Dry Skin

Even children without sensory issues can struggle with winter clothing. For tactile avoiders, however, getting into winter gear can feel completely overwhelming: sweaters are itchy, boots are heavy, coats are bulky and restrictive. They may find dry, irritated skin to be extremely painful but, along with olfactory avoiders, be unable to tolerate certain lotions or skin care products. On the other hand, those with tactile discrimination disorder and interoception discrimination disorder may not notice cracked or bleeding skin.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Avoid clothing made out of bulky or scratchy materials like wool. Stick to soft, comfortable layers of fleece, cotton, or flannel, and remember to remove the tags!
  • Have your child try on and approve every piece of outdoor gear―coats, hats, gloves, you name it. If you can, buy extras of smaller items in case something gets lost.
  • Find alternatives to uncomfortable items. Experiment with earmuffs instead of hats, hand warmers instead of gloves, or snowboarding pants instead of snow bibs.
  • Apply moisturizer frequently, especially after bathing. If your avoider can’t stand lotion, experiment with body bars, coconut oil, shea butter, or aloe vera gel.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. Add fruit slices, flavor packets, or seltzer to combat flavor fatigue.

Challenge #3 – Sensitivity to Cold and Heat

Not everyone experiences the sensations of winter in the same way. Tactile avoiders may feel unbearably cold while playing outside or uncomfortably hot in certain types of clothing. On the other hand, tactile seekers may love to play outside on very cold days, hold snow in their bare hands, or take extremely hot showers. Finally, those with tactile discrimination disorder and interoception discrimination disorder may be unable to feel extreme temperatures at all, making them susceptible to frostbite or overheating.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Check in with your child frequently, especially during outdoor play, to make sure he’s not become overheated or becoming too cold.
  • Ease your child into the colder temperatures. Use indoor sensory bins to help him get used to the texture and cold of ice and snow.
  • Be mindful of seeking behavior around extreme cold. Put time limits on outdoor play and make sure gloves, hats, and coats are being worn.
  • Combat feeling cold by taking warm baths, heating up towels or clothes in the dryer prior to dressing, and making hot chocolate after playing outside.

Challenge #4 – New Foods and Smells

For most of us, winter means tweaking our diets to include more hot and multi-textured meals like stews, soups, and crockpot dishes. Many fruits and vegetables are out of season and will have a significantly different taste or texture than they do in the spring and summer. All of these changes can be extremely upsetting to gustatory avoiders and tactile avoiders. In addition to struggling with new foods, olfactory avoiders may be bothered by cleaning, cooking, and other household smells they might not notice when the windows are open.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Introduce new foods slowly and methodically. See our previous article for a step-by-step guide.
  • Have your child help plan and prepare meals. This will get him familiar with new smells, textures, and ingredients without having to taste them.
  • Know your child’s favorite foods and have a way to make them inside. For example, you might buy a George Foreman grill or grill pan to make burgers or hot dogs.
  • Be conscious of cleaning, cooking, and other strong or unpleasant household smells. Open the windows when possible and keep the house well-ventilated.

Challenge #5 – Staying Active

We all have different reactions to being cooped up inside on a cold winter day. Vestibular seekers and proprioceptive seekers may become manic and start bouncing off the walls, while vestibular avoiders and proprioceptive avoiders may become withdrawn and almost completely sedentary. No matter whether your child is seeking or avoiding, engaging in regular physical activity is critical for relieving anxiety, improving concentration, and transitioning between activities.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Schedule times throughout the day to do jumping jacks, stretch, or run in place. This can be especially helpful when transitioning into a new activity.
  • Have a designated area of the house where “rough” play is okay. Include things like pillow forts, obstacle courses, and crash pads, trampolines, etc.
  • Play family games that involve lots of movement, such as Twister, I Can Do That!, and The Floor Is Lava!
  • Have your child help with chores that involve executive functioning and proprioceptive input, such as snow shoveling and carrying groceries or laundry.
  • Experiment with different seating options that increase movement and concentration, such as yoga balls, foam rollers, and balance beams.

Combat boredom by bringing tents, pool toys, and other outdoor equipment inside. Experiment with alternatives to outdoor games, like the Hover Soccer Ball.

Challenge #6 – Changes in Routine

Like any significant disruption, the changes in routine brought on by winter break can be difficult for children with special needs. Without external timekeeping cues such as what class they’re in or where the sun is in the sky, children with interoception discrimination disorder often have difficulty knowing when to eat, when to sleep, and when they need to use the restroom. 

Tips and Tricks:

  • Prepare your child for any changes in routine. What exactly will be changing? What will stay the same? Are there new cues can he look for to know what to do next?
  • Set timers or alarms throughout the day to remind your child when it’s time to eat, use the restroom, or shift to another activity.
  • See our article for building good transition habits for more tips on establishing routines, creating rituals, and managing expectations.