Summer Fun for Sensory-Sensitive Kids

by Sophia Akiko Stephens

Summer is a very exciting time—the sun’s out, the weather’s warm, and when there isn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky, everyone’s first inclination is to head outside for some summertime adventure. However, for children on the autism spectrum, children who have sensory processing disorders, or children who have other special needs, summer can pose an array of challenges.

It’s important to note here that in the ideal world, children with special needs would not have to explain their conditions. This also applies to nonverbal children who rely on other cues to make their needs known or visible to others. With these experiences, and especially when interacting with neurotypical or able-bodied children and adults: respect and compassion are teachable traits that do not require the bodies or experiences of disabled/special needs folks.

With that, here are five sensory-friendly/sensory-safe tips for the upcoming summer season that not only are fun for the special-needs child in your life, but will go a long way in ensuring that your summer fun is inclusive and safe for everyone:

1. Comfort is key. Summer can be a struggle from the get-go if the sunscreen isn’t compatible with our skin, or our swimsuit/summer clothing feels uncomfortable or doesn’t fit correctly. When it comes to sensory aversions and difficulties, we can’t sweat the small stuff—if we are uncomfortable from the start, the unappealing clothing, sunscreen, or another part of the preparation can be a hindering distraction from what we want to try to do.Is your child sensitive to scents? Do they struggle with sunscreen lotions that sit on top of the skin, or ones that absorb? Are they comfortable with wearing sunscreen, or do they prefer sun-blocking clothing items like hats, sunglasses, shirts/pants/etc.? If you accommodate these needs first, your outing is much more likely to be successful.

2. A quiet summer is still a fun summer. High-volume events like 4th of July barbecues, pool parties, or other ventures can be overwhelming and disorienting for children who experience auditory difficulties or special needs. Whenever possible, preparing a “quiet corner” with activities like coloring books, toys, puzzles, games, and more (noise-cancelling headphones are also an excellent way to protect your child) provides a safe haven for audio-aversive children. If they want to get in on the physical excitement without leaving their safe space, a game of Twister, or a volume-safe dance party provides all the fun without compromising their needs. Bonus: these activities also engage your child’s proprioception and tactile input abilities.

3. Farmer’s markets can be hit-or-miss. Some children may enjoy the variety of sensory experiences—touching produce, tasting food, seeing vendors’ wares—and others may find themselves quickly overwhelmed. For children who experience hesitation or sensory aversions around going to the market, or may be curious about going but aren’t ready yet: showing children videos of local farmer’s markets is a great way to start: if your child is interested in eventually going to the market, they are prepared with a realistic idea of what that experience may be like. 

If there is more interest in the video than the market, you can bring back produce/products from the market, and make a fun treasure hunt activity out of searching for which vendor(s) your ware(s) of choice came from in the video. 

For children who struggle with auditory processing: you can either gradually introduce a higher volume with each viewing to prepare them for the hustle and bustle of the market if they are able, or equip them with noise-cancelling headphones for the trip.  

4. Staying in the shade is totally okay, and offers its own opportunities for summertime fun! Staying in the shade is often put down in ways that people often do not recognize as being harmful. Asking people to “get out of the shade—have some fun” can be a welcoming invitation for many, but for those who need shade for their own safety, comments like this are actually microaggressions. For little ones who need the shade, preparing an activity bag with puzzles, games, toys, and more can provide hours of fun—and shut down any and all shamers.

5. There are a variety of local resources and venues that are sensory-friendly, and accessible for children with special needs. This guide by ParentMap boasts 13 Seattle-area activities and locations that are family-friendly, and informed on a variety of special needs. Each one of these accessible, tried-and-true opportunities are dedicated to ensuring the safety and comfort of all their visitors. 

There are plenty of activities and events this summer that are safe for the whole family, and include children and adults of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. How are you preparing for summer, and what are the special needs that you incorporate into your summer planning? Let us know in the comments!

Image credit: The Farmers Market Co. & Fredericksburg Farmers Market