October 15, 2015 Mary & Suzanne

The Highly Sensitive Child: Too fast, too high, too much?

A common question: How do I make the park fun for my sensitive and cautious child?

There is a big assumption out there that the park is fun for all. Who wouldn’t want to fly down the slides, reach for the sky on the swings, and kick off their shoes in the sand box, right? An important topic we will begin to tackle today is what to do if your child does not want any part of playful exploration at the park!  Children who experience what is often referred to as over registration can be easily overwhelmed by sensations and appear sensitive their environments.  Quickly reaching a point of enough discomfort that they avoid all activities that might make them feel this way again, or worse, these children tend to move away from park play including swings, slides, climbing, grass, and sandboxes.  A child who prefers to stay at home, or prefers to sit in a parent’s lap instead of investigating park equipment or running with friends might fall into this category.

You can observe over registration as it relates to different sensory systems. Two types of over registration that we commonly see are:

1. Tactile:

The child who is overly sensitive to touch and texture is uncomfortable with the light touch that they experience when walking on or playing with sand, dirt, leaves and grass. You might notice this child grimacing, looking disgusted, avoiding sand play, or very methodically staying on the pavement to walk around a grassy area. They may dislike the feeling that they experience when making contact with some of the park equipment (maybe slippery, hot, cold, sticky, textured) so will go to great lengths to avoid it.  This child tends to be vigilant about avoiding the input that is uncomfortable and may become irritable or exhausted from the effort to control the exposure and environment.

kid-sulking

2. Movement:

Some children are very uncomfortable with movement sensations.  A key term often used to identify this type of profile is gravitational insecurity. This child will tend to avoid swinging, spinning, sliding and fast movement, or they will want to stop swinging after a very short time. Climbing that involves their feet being off of the ground can feel scary. Some children are suddenly overwhelmed by fear and need help getting down even though they were comfortable climbing up. This child is not getting clear sensory feedback that supports the balance and equilibrium shifts that prevent a fall. Movement becomes overwhelming with poorly organized information being processed from their environment.

Approaches we use:

Proprioception (heavy work to joints and muscles) and deep pressure (firm touch) can really help children to organize sensations that tend to be overwhelming for them. With a sensitive child who experiences over registration of sensory information, we start with activities that provide large amounts of proprioception and deep pressure.

Think about this equation for progress:

sensation avoided +  heavy work = steps closer to getting into the swing of things at the park!

Therapist tips and tricks to support your sensitive child as he ease’s into processing movement and tactile experiences:

Heavy work:

  • Pulling another child on the scooter, before he has his turn taking a ride
  • Climbing up a slide with the rope, before he heads down himself
  • When your child is sliding down a slide, use your hands to keep contact and pressure with the bottoms of your child’s feet for the first couple to rides.
  • Digging with a shovel and carrying a bucket filled with sand, before his hands make contact with the sand
  • Jumping off of a low step, with a secure hand hold from mom or dad
  • While sitting in a posturally supportive swing (bucket swing), have the child pull one end of a rope while mom or dad holds the other end, to make the swing go
  • Pushing another child in the swing, before taking his turn (A child who is uneasy on swings may not be ready for another child to push HIM yet. Unpredictability and changes in push strength may increase anxiety leading to avoidance of the activity. Keep swing pushes predictable and communication open related to how high and fast swinging will be. Ask your child what speed he prefers, and always add positive and creative commentary! “Wow! Your toes are reaching up to my hands! How cool!”)
  • Slowly pushing your child in a swing by his feet to give feedback similar to his feet touching the ground
  • Wheel barrow races (Tipping a child’s head lower than his feet may lead him to feel that the movement is more intense, and possibly become a worrisome experience. If this is the case, when in a wheelbarrow walk position, keep feet parallel to head, or hold onto your child’s thighs or knees to keep his body more horizontal.)
  • Hanging from the overhead bars

An extra strategy that supports comfortable exploration and engagement:

  • Place a beach towel in the sand box for your child to sit on if he does not like the feeling of sand on his skin. Provide digging tools and buckets to get play started, and slowly introduce items that are a little farther, and a little farther away from the beach towel for him to retrieve over time, keeping with the play theme. Eventually, your child may even tolerate taking off his shoes and socks to experience a little sand between his toes!

It is important to not pressure or force your child into trying things that they are experiencing high amounts of fear or anxiety with. By using this equation for success,

sensation avoided +  heavy work =
steps closer to getting into the swing of things at the park!

and tossing in some playful imagination and laughter, you will be surprised at how your child will begin to dip his toes into that sandbox sooner rather than later!

Stepping it up a notch and headed to the amusement park? Amy over at Kids Play Smarter has a great post about Surviving Amusement Parks with Sensory Sensitive Kids!

See you at the park!

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