If you have a child with sensory processing difficulties, you’ve surely had to parent your way through a range of sensory behaviors, the most significant of those being sensory overload meltdowns. At home, you have access to more sensory supports, toys, and tools to manage your child’s sensory overload, but when you’re out and about, it’s much harder to help your child without your normal “bag of tricks.”
Before we can talk about strategies to manage sensory overload, we need to talk about what that means. Sensory overload happens when a child experiences too much sensory stimulation and his central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, movement, and touch can all cause a child to become overstimulated, especially when they are trying to navigate busy, loud, crowded places.
To oversimplify a complicated central nervous system response, when your system is overly stressed and overloaded, it triggers a “fight or flight” response. This is an important difference between sensory overload, or meltdown, and a typical toddler’s temper tantrum. Kids who are experiencing sensory overload need an adult’s help keeping safe and regaining control.
If you find yourself preparing for a dinner out and want to support your child’s sensory needs at the restaurant, consider making a visual schedule of the evening or a social story to communicate to your child what is planned and what the expectations will be. Social stories that walk a child through the plan, from beginning to end, will offer predictability and a sense of control that may reduce anxiety. The same social story could focus on strategies to help your child work through some sensory discomfort, for example: “People eating in the restaurant will be talking and it might be louder than my ears like. I can put on my earmuffs (headphones) so it’s not as loud.” Preparing and reviewing these kid-friendly plans will proactively support your child’s regulation. Check out Pictello or My Book Creator apps for easy ways to create your own stories.
The second critical consideration to support your child is what to bring in your portable sensory toolkit that will be restaurant appropriate. This is when you have to personalize the recommendations based on your child’s specific interests and sensory needs.
Here are our top ten must-haves to help prevent sensory overload on-the-go:
Sunglasses: Sunglasses are great for filtering out bright fluorescent lights that can be overstimulating for kids.
Noise-reducing headphones or ear muffs: There is a wide range of sensory-friendly headphones that will filter out or completely block out environmental noises. When looking at what your child will tolerate and prefer, consider if they’ll be worn over the ears, inside the ears, or embedded in a headband/earmuff style.
Hat or cap with a visor: It may or may not be appropriate depending on the formality of the restaurant you’ll be dining in, but hats serve a couple of purposes: they’re helpful in allowing your child some distance from social interactions and also good for blocking any remaining light when sunglasses are not an option. The stigma associated with wearing a hat indoors versus wearing shades inside is much less!
Chewy, crunchy snack: Before dinner comes, take advantage of the crunchy breadsticks or pack a favorite snack that allows for chewing. Oral proprioceptive input is calming and can help with regulation. If your child is willing, try chewable jewelry in the form of necklaces, dog tags, or bracelets.
Unscented hand wipes: Accidentally touching something sticky or messy can be enough to trigger a sensory response. So can the fragrant smells of the restaurant’s bathroom soap! Unscented hand wipes keep your child clean and help with any tactile sensitivities when your child accidentally touches something that irritates them.
Preferred scented hand lotion or scented object: Restaurants are filled with competing smells from neighboring tables that can overwhelm your child’s olfactory system. Bringing something with a familiar and neutralizing scent can be helpful in combating offensive odors and instead offering a calming, preferred smell. This could be in the form of a scented object, scented markers, or hand lotion.
Fidget toy: This is when you need to know what calms your child - a fidget could be a toy that is manipulated in repetitive, simple movements. A fidget could also be an object that offers a preferred texture, visual pattern, or auditory feedback. Whatever you choose to add to your sensory toolkit for fidget toys, keep in mind that you’ll want it to be contained so little pieces don’t go missing at the dinner table!
Break Ideas: If your child is able to verbally communicate with you when the restaurant gets to be too much, then great! Teach your child how to ask for a break before the sensory behavior happens. This can be built into your social story and rehearsed ahead of time. For kids who are not consistent verbal communicators, consider making a simple communication board with basic symbols or phrases (“I need a break,” “Let’s Go,” “Too Loud”). Keep them on the table or within reaching distance so you can support your child when he does communicate with you!
Busy Bags: We all need to keep the kids busy at the table, so be sure to include some busy bag activities that engage the sensory systems too. We love Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, Wikki Stix, Magnadoodles, and sticker activity books to keep them occupied!
Sensory Clothes: Dress your child for sensory success when you prepare for the restaurant. Consider wearing a base layer that provides more deep touch pressure input in the form of tight-fitting lycra or a “compression garment”. These can be worn underneath regular clothes for an inconspicuous sensory solution. Additionally, your child may find weighted wearables like vests, backpacks, suspenders, and collars helpful in providing additional proprioceptive input. If you can’t plan to dress ahead of time, add a weighted object like a weighted stuffed animal or lap pad to your portable sensory toolkit.
No matter what you do to prepare your child, or what you pack for sensory toys to help with regulation, sensory overload may still affect your child on restaurant outings. If this happens, remember to stay calm and breathe so your child does not feel your stress. If necessary and possible, leave the overstimulating restaurant and seek out a safe place to help your child calm down. Give consistent, deep pressure (big bear hugs) and try not to talk to your child until you observe them regaining some semblance of calm.
Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic and educational supports. Alescia strives to help children along this continuum by fostering a love of learning.