Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Ocean and Sensory Processing Disorder

I had the privilege of spending this summer just a few minutes away from the ocean, and with a blessed 3-day weekend every week (I know, I was a little bit spoiled, but it did make for some long work days), I made a point of going to the beach almost every weekend. As I was sitting there one day, listening to the waves crash and watching the pelicans and seagulls, it hit me how brilliant a place the ocean is for children who are sensory seekers. Consider it: there's the varying textures of wet and dry sand, plus the rolling water; there's the strong taste of sea water; the generally bright sun gives extra visual input; the unceasing sound of the waves and other people playing provides auditory stimulus. The vestibular and proprioceptive senses are challenged by time spent in the moving water and walking on or digging in the unstable sand. So, for those children, the beach is the perfect place to visit, and one of the few places where you can let children who desperately need it run amok (within safety rules, of course).

For children who fall on the other side of things, though, the ocean can be a scary place. The water is constantly moving, the ground is unstable, and there is an unending barrage of light and sound. So what might you do for these kids? I think there are a number of ideas that might make it easier -- and if you have any further suggestions, please comment below! I would love to hear them. If the child is sensitive to the brightness, try visiting on an overcast day or give them a pair of sunglasses (the latter, of course, might result in other sensory challenges). If they have a hard time negotiating different surfaces, try to attain a place in hard packed sand. If they are bothered by the moving water, consider a beach where when the tide recedes there is a shallow pool left behind. If they are bothered by sand being stuck to them, provide them with a chair so that they are less likely to end up with pants full of sand and bring along a watering can to make it easy to fill up with sea water and rinse off. Water shoes can also be a way to help keep sand from creeping between their toes. Make sure their bathing suit fits snugly, but not too snugly, to prevent chaffing and irritation.

Children who are have sensory defensiveness might also benefit from a social story that talks about some of the things they might see and feel, in order to give them a chance to prepare. It would even be better to add in some textures, like sandpaper to represent the feel of sand and a (well-sealed) bag of gel or paint to approximate the feeling of water. For these children, it is important to not push their limits too far. Give them the chance to accustom themselves to this new and different location, to touch the sand with a shovel before digging in with their fingers or to wade with just their toes in the water before going in up to their tummies. It may be best to first try the beach on a day that is less busy, to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed by a crowd as well. And for a first trip, a short time might be all that they can handle -- next time they will better understand what to expect and might be able to play longer!