Children can have a difficult time tolerating change, period. It may be even more challenging for those with sensory sensitivities, especially when that change entails having to start wearing different clothes, different shoes, sunglasses or hats, and tolerating the sensory input of applying and wearing sunscreen and bug spray (the greasy feel, the spray can, the sound, the smell… don’t even get me started!). These can all add up to some overwhelming times (both for you and your child!) Luckily, you can help prepare your child by easing into these changes gradually and by teaching them to tolerate those changes. Here’s how:
1) Start early.
Whether the difficult changes include wearing scratchy new summer clothes, wearing sandals instead of their favorite sneakers, or having bug spray sprayed all over them – the sooner your kiddo learns to tolerate the changes, the better. Instead of throwing on a new pair of unfamiliar and uncomfortable sandals and expecting Johnny to be wearing them with no problem by tomorrow, prepare ahead of time! When you have months or weeks to teach toleration, you can rest assured you will achieve success by your goal date (in this case – hot weather season!), and have Johnny running around in those sandals by your first beach day!
2) Start small
Let’s talk about tomatoes. If you hate tomatoes like me, you know what I’m talking about. If you gave me a 1/8 inch sliver of tomato and asked me to eat it… I might consider it- and because it was so small, I would likely be able to tolerate it, even if I didn’t like it. If you gave me a whole tomato and told me to take a bite… I would tell you where you could put that tomato (in the trash, obviously!). When introducing a non-preferred item or experience, start out so small that your child will hardly notice or realize that they don’t like it (like my 1/8” sliver of tomato). Set your kiddo up for success from the get-go. Spray the bug spray on your own finger, then dab a dot of bug spray on your child and praise them for tolerating it so well! Or, pretend a spray bottle with water is bug spray, and begin the toleration process by spritzing a little water on their hand. Let them just touch their new sandal with one finger, and praise them for accepting it so nicely! Put just a drop of sunscreen on them and say “wow, nice job letting me put that on!” In the next section, we’ll talk about how to go from a single dot of bug spray to tolerating a whole body spray-down with zero tears involved.
3) Gradually build it up.
Getting back to our tomatoes. Let’s say you gave me a 1/8 inch sliver of tomato for a few days, and begin to notice that I am calm and accepting that tomato with little issue. You might then decide to give me a ¼ inch sliver of tomato, until I can handle that as well. As you gradually increase the amount over time, I would likely learn to at least tolerate that whole bite of tomato. I wouldn’t like it, but I could definitely tolerate it! The same idea goes for uncomfortable or unpleasant sensory experiences. For example, if your child hates the feeling of someone rubbing sunscreen on them, you can start by applying just a drop of sunscreen and rewarding them for tolerating it. Next, put a drop of sunscreen on and rub it in and praise them for tolerating that as well. Gradually increase this with two drops, 3 drops, a quarter sized amount, a tablespoon amount, etc. If it is the rubbing in sensation they struggle with, you can increase their toleration by increasing time – example: tolerates rubbing for 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, until you are able to get the sunscreen applied. For new clothes or shoes – first touching the shirt, then holding the shirt, then wearing it for 1 minute, then 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, etc – until they are wearing their shirt all day! While these procedures may sound tedious, they are much more enjoyable and successful than trying to struggle with an upset child who does not want to be touched.
4) Make it fun.
Everything is better when it’s fun, right? Make the non-preferred items or sensations preferred by making them fun! As a rule of thumb, I believe that if you can get super silly (think: if you’ll be embarrassed to be acting this way in front of another adult, you’re doing it right), you can make any random, meaningless, or even non-preferred object into something really fun. If its new sandals – put them on your hands, get down on the floor, and pretend you’re a puppy wearing sandals! Entice your child to want to play with them too! Your child wanting to hold them and play with them will help you skip ahead steps in teaching toleration of them. If it’s a new tank top, make their favorite teddy bear wear the shirt and dance around in it to their favorite song. If its sunscreen, buy a cheap tube you won’t mind wasting and let your kiddo put food coloring in it, finger paint with it, or just do some sensory play with it on a surface you can wash down after. If it’s bug spray, sing their favorite song and punctuate every line with a spritz! (ex: “B-I-N-G-(spritz)O”).
5) Deliver frequently
The more often your child comes into contact with an item or experience, the quicker they will become accustomed to interacting with it and tolerating it’s presence. If you follow the above steps on a daily basis, your child will learn to tolerate that item or that sensation much quicker than if you exposed them to it on a weekly or monthly basis. I’m not saying that you need to go to the beach everyday to practice tolerating sunscreen application (though I’m not judging if you do, I’m just jealous.), but you can also practice it at home while watching TV, with sunscreen or even with regular lotion!
Over time, you can ensure that your child doesn’t lose their ability to tolerate these things, but actually continues to become more and more tolerant and flexible to these uncomfortable changes. They can both maintain the ability to tolerate those sensory difficulties, as well as continue learning to tolerate new ones. These suggestions apply for summertime changes, but they can be applied to any season or any non-preferred items or experiences. Over the fall and winter, you can help them learn to tolerate new sneakers, new snow boots, wearing hats, mittens, bulky jackets, and tolerating lotion application for the dry skin that winter never fails to deliver! With these tools in your belt, you can be your child’s year-round sensory super hero!
Author: Cassandra Davis, M.A., BCBA, LABA