Preparedness Tips for Sensory-Intense Environments: How to Help Your Children

A close up view of a blue pop-it fidget toy in a child's hands as he plays with it.

Emergency preparedness is an important part of everyday life.

Schoolchildren practice fire drills in case the unimaginable occurs. Government officials prepare shelters and evacuation routes in case of natural disasters.

In situations like these, we are preparing for clearly defined threats, whether a fire or a hurricane.

Children (and adults) who struggle with sensory processing often experience emergencies that can be a bit harder to identify immediately.

These individuals may become overwhelmed or experience distress when in a location with bright lights, loud or repetitive sounds, sudden movements, or unfamiliar or vivid smells.

Such environments may include shopping malls, playgrounds, parties, sporting events, vacation destinations, doctors’ offices, and Emergency Departments.

These environments may be tolerable for others, but they can become emergencies for these children as their bodies tell them they must escape or fight back, which can be traumatic.

Planning ahead for sensory emergencies

Unlike a blizzard or a hurricane, we often can’t predict a sensory emergency days in advance. 

However, just as we stock up on essentials ahead of a Nor’easter, parents of children with sensory differences should have a plan and the supplies necessary to respond to a sensory emergency.

In the event that your child feels overwhelmed by sensory input in an unfamiliar environment, your plan and supplies will help your respond efficiently and appropriately, reducing stress for both you and your child.

One of the best ways to prepare for a sensory emergency is to create an emergency sensory kit.

How to create an emergency sensory kit for your child

Think of an emergency sensory kit as a kind of first aid kit for sensory emergencies.

Your kit should include familiar items, whether physical or digital, that help your child calm down during difficult sensory situations.

While the perfect items will vary from child to child, items we suggest for your emergency sensory kit include:

  • Physical items: Stuffy and/or preferred small toy, fidgets, favorite book, headphones, sunglasses, gum/lollipop*, chewy snacks*, Chewelry/pacifier, water bottle with a straw*, bubbles, scented items (lip balm, scratch-and-sniff stickers, scented markets), crayons and coloring books.
  • Digital items: Music playlist, watch list for YouTube
  • Familiar items from your child’s daily routines: Toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and soap, preferred hairbrush and hair ties/hat, washcloth or wipes with preferred texture, change of clothes featuring preferred style and texture.
  • A written list of likes/dislikes and strategies that help your child to calm at home. 

*If using oral intake items in a healthcare setting, please clear their use with an attending provider.

We recommend updating your emergency sensory kit, particularly the written list, at least once per year – consider updating it when you take your child to their annual physical.

As with a first aid kit, you should store your child’s emergency sensory kit in an accessible place, like your car.

How to prepare a child with sensory differences for a doctor’s appointment or healthcare encounter

Plan to bring your child’s emergency sensory kit with you to any healthcare encounter, as these environments can be overwhelming or overstimulating.

As mentioned above, storing the kit in an accessible place can help ensure that you have it on hand for both planned and unplanned doctor’s visits, easing stress on your child.

At South Shore Health, we also encourage parents to print and fill out a Sensory Informed Care Plan/Assessment form, then bring it with them to each appointment.

You should also keep a copy of the completed form in your child’s emergency sensory kit.

This information will be helpful to any healthcare provider who may see your child, whether at South Shore Health or if you’re across the country on vacation.

Sensory Informed Care at South Shore Health

The Sensory Informed Care Plan/Assessment form is part of our Occupational Therapy Team’s Sensory Informed Care efforts, which aim to improve the experiences of patients with sensory differences.

Pediatric occupational therapists Julie Garber, OT, OTR/L, MA and Marykate Galluzzo, OTD, OTR/L and speech-language pathologist Jillian Watson, MS, CCC-SLP are currently working with a variety of departments across South Shore Health to build awareness and provide for the needs of patients who have sensory challenges by developing a Sensory Informed Care approach in healthcare provision.

Sensory Informed Care is care that acknowledges a patient’s sensory processing differences and identifies successful methods to help address those differences.

A key part of Sensory Informed Care is proactively communicating sensory differences to our care teams, which helps our team provide effective and safe care while preventing trauma for the patient, family, and care team. 

What if I don’t know how to calm my child with sensory differences?

At South Shore Health, our pediatric occupational therapists are skilled at assessing your child’s sensory system and the responses to changes in their environments.

During an assessment, a pediatric occupational therapist will identify your child’s specific sensitivities and determine what environmental inputs are setting off those sensitivities.

After the assessment, the therapist will develop a treatment plan personalized to each child’s unique needs.

This treatment will help manage your child’s sensory needs and improve their ability to participate in desired activities with peers.

Treatment will also help identify strategies you can use to help calm your child in environments where they may experience a sensory emergency.

How can I get treatment for my child’s sensory sensitivities?

If you suspect that your child may be experiencing sensory differences, you should first discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.

If your pediatrician determines that sensory sensitivities are present, he or she will refer you and your child for an occupational therapy evaluation for sensory sensitivities like the one described above.

Our occupational therapists will care for you and your child through Sensory Informed Care.

Julie Garber, OT, OTR/L, MA is a pediatric occupational therapist who is working together with Marykate Galluzzo, OTD, OTR/L in Sensory Informed Care development at South Shore Health.

Learn more about Occupational Therapy at South Shore Health.

Download our Sensory Informed Care Plan/Assessment form.