Article – Summer and Sensory Overwhelm

How Summer Weather Can Impact Children with Sensory Integration Challenges

As the days get warmer and the sun shines brighter (if only for a morning), many children eagerly anticipate the joys of summer. However, for some children with sensory integration and processing difficulties, the change in weather can bring about challenges that go beyond simple discomfort.

In this post, we’ll explore how the transition to summer can dysregulate a child’s nervous system, affecting their ability to perform everyday tasks like wearing school clothes, getting changed for PE, and applying sunscreen. We’ll also look at Williams’ Pyramid of Learning to shed light on why some children struggle more than others during this time of year.

Understanding Sensory Integration and Processing Difficulties

Sensory integration refers to the brain’s ability to process and make sense of information received from the senses, such as sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. For most children, this process occurs seamlessly, allowing them to navigate their environment comfortably. However, for children with sensory integration and processing difficulties, this process can be disrupted, leading to sensory overload or sensory seeking behaviours.

Common challenges associated with sensory integration issues include hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli, difficulties with sensory modulation (regulating responses to sensory input), and poor sensory discrimination (difficulty distinguishing between different sensations).

Williams’ Pyramid of Learning

Williams’ Pyramid of Learning emphasises the foundational role of sensory processing in a child’s ability to learn and engage with their environment. At the base of the pyramid lies sensory processing, upon which higher-level cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and learning are built. When sensory processing is disrupted, it can impede a child’s progress up the pyramid, affecting their overall learning and development.

During the summer months, the sensory experiences associated with warmer weather can exacerbate existing sensory challenges in children. The feel of lightweight summer clothing against the skin, the scent of sunscreen, the brightness of sunlight, and the heat of the sun can all trigger sensory responses that overwhelm a child’s nervous system, leading to dysregulation.

Impact on Everyday Tasks

The dysregulation of the nervous system can manifest in various ways, making everyday tasks more challenging for children with sensory integration difficulties. For example:

  • Wearing school clothes: Children may struggle with the texture, weight, or tightness of summer clothing, leading to resistance or discomfort.
  • Getting changed for PE: The sensory demands of changing clothes in a bustling, crowded environment can be overwhelming, causing anxiety or avoidance.
  • Applying sunscreen: The sensation of sunscreen on the skin, combined with the smell and texture, can be aversive for some children, making it difficult to tolerate.

Strategies for Support

Understanding the connection between sensory integration challenges and the summer weather can guide parent/carers and professionals in providing appropriate support for children. Some strategies to consider include:

In warm weather, sensory accommodations become even more crucial for children with sensory integration challenges. Here’s how both home and school environments can implement strategies to support these children effectively.

At Home

Sensory-Friendly Clothing Options

  • Select lightweight, breathable fabrics that are soft and tag-free to minimise tactile sensitivities.
  • Consider seamless clothing options to reduce irritation from seams and labels.
  • Offer choices to the child, allowing them to select clothing that feels comfortable and soothing to their sensory preferences.

Creating a Sensory-Supportive Environment

  • Designate a quiet, calming space at home where the child can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. This space should be free from excessive stimuli and equipped with sensory tools to promote relaxation.
  • Incorporate elements such as dim lighting, soft textures, and soothing colours to create a calming atmosphere.
  • Encourage sensory activities that help regulate the nervous system, such as deep breathing exercises, yoga, or sensory bins filled with tactile materials like rice or sand.

Providing Sensory Tools

  • Offer a variety of sensory tools that cater to the child’s specific needs and preferences. This may include fidget toys, chewable necklaces, stress balls, or textured surfaces for tactile stimulation.
  • Introduce weighted blankets (as advised by a professional) or vests during relaxation times to provide deep pressure input, which can have a calming effect on the nervous system.
  • Involve the child in selecting sensory tools to empower them and increase their engagement with the strategies.

At School

Sensory-Friendly Clothing Options

  • Collaborate with parents to ensure that the child’s school wardrobe aligns with their sensory needs. Provide guidelines for appropriate school attire while accommodating individual preferences.
  • Consider implementing a ‘sensory-friendly dress code’ policy that allows for flexibility in clothing choices, considering factors such as fabric texture, seams, and tightness.

Creating Sensory-Supportive Spaces

  • Designate a sensory room or quiet corner within the school environment where children can take sensory breaks as needed. This space should be equipped with sensory tools and resources to promote self-regulation.
  • Educate teachers and staff on the importance of recognising sensory overload cues and providing opportunities for students to decompress in a supportive environment.
  • Implement sensory-friendly classroom modifications, such as adjustable lighting, noise-reducing ear plugs/loops, or flexible seating options, to accommodate diverse sensory needs.

Providing Sensory Tools

  • Stock classrooms with a variety of sensory tools and equipment that can be easily accessed by students throughout the day.
  • Encourage peer support and understanding by fostering a classroom culture that promotes empathy and acceptance of sensory differences.

By implementing these strategies both at home and school, parent/carers and professionals can create environments that support the sensory needs of children with sensory integration challenges, allowing them to thrive and participate fully in daily activities, even in the warm summer weather.

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