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Adapting the environment for sensory children, part one

Part 1 of 2: Sensory adaptations

cartoon child bright paints
Be proactive, not reactive
If you wait until your child melts down or shuts down, and then you pull out strategies to resolve the situation, that’s certainly a step in the right direction, but wouldn’t it be even better to avoid the meltdown or withdrawal in the first place?
As you get to know your child’s triggers, you’ll be able to proactively adapt his environment to avoid them. This post and the next few will give you directions and ideas for environmental accommodations you can make.
First, just say no 
The first line of defense is simply not to go to places you know will overload your child and cause  her to freak out. The crowded, noisy Fourth of July fireworks just might not work for your family. Ditto for a head-banging rock concert or being outdoors in a thunderstorm. Or visiting the strong-smelling perfume counters at Macy’s. Or visiting Macy’s at all.
Don’t put your child into situations he may not be able to handle, for example: Strong lights and camera flashes, of even an informal photo shoot, may simply be too much for her. A loud show, or one with strobe lights, can trigger panic. Time your excursions so you are inside in the middle of the day if bright sunlight is an issue. A large family gathering of well-meaning huggers can cause him intense anxiety.
Second, survey the territory
Inspect the surroundings from the viewpoint of your sensory child. We discussed in more detail how your child experiences the world in this post.
Be mindful of the sensory components that make up the environment (especially sight, sound, and smell). What seems innocuous, or even pleasant, to you may be too full of sensory stimulation for your child. But you can ward off a meltdown by removing some of the stimuli before she loses control — you can pre-adjust the environment for her.
Third, adapt the territory
There are three main categories of environmental adaptations and two categories of personal adaptations, that are the most useful. This post and the next will provide you with overall strategies and ideas for what you want to achieve in each category. Let’s start with environmental adaptations.
Visual (sight) adaptations
You’ll want to use two different sets of strategies: one set to target sensitivity to light, and one set to reduce visual distractions.
Dim the lights
When choosing the lighting in your home, keep in mind that lamp lighting is less visually stressful than overhead lighting. Dim lighting is calming; bright lighting is alerting and can make your child anxious. Definitely avoid unnatural fluorescent lights, which can also often buzz and/or flicker.
Mute the colors
Choose light colors to paint walls in your home. Pastels, blues, and greens are particularly calming and help in reducing visual stress. Remember that too many colors, especially bright colors, can be overwhelming.
Clutter-free zoning ahead
If you want your child to be able to focus on homework or other tasks, you’ll need to keep the space free of visual distractions. Your child will function best in structured, well-defined, organized spaces. So set up the area with an eye to reducing clutter and “busy-ness”. You’ll need to determine specifics based on your personal home and needs, but some directions to take include keeping toys and other movable items, such as art supplies, neatly organized in bins; putting away clutter in cabinets or closets; always returning items to their designated places; and even covering bookshelves with a solid-colored wall hanging or sheet if the different sizes and colors of book spines distract your child. Finally, you’ll want your child’s seat to be facing a wall rather than a window.
Out and about
You have control over your home environment, but what about when you’re outside your home and your control zone? A good solution is to always carry sunglasses, either lightly tinted or dark (or both) to offer your child, even for indoors. For outdoors, you’ll want to have dark sunglasses, and perhaps also a baseball cap or visor, depending on your child’s preferences.
Auditory (sound) adaptations
Again, you’ll want to employ two sets of strategies; one set to target sensitivity to sound and one set to reduce auditory distractions.
Turn down the volume
Loud sounds can be very upsetting to a sensory child. So turn down the volume in general. Don’t slam doors. Play music at low volume and choose musical selections that have a rhythmical and predictable character. Your child may respond well to regulating music with a slow, steady, rhythmic beat such as drumming, or to classical music.
If any music is distracting, or if you want to block out unpleasant noises, you can substitute soothing sounds. Try a “white noise” or nature sound machine, or play relaxing nature sounds such as ocean waves or rain. You can even simply run a fan. 
People talking can also bombard your child with too much stimuli, especially if a lot of people are talking at once, so you will want to be mindful about choosing which gatherings to attend and which to skip. When addressing your child, don’t speak in harsh tones or yell. Use your “indoor voice;” speak quietly, slowly and in a regulated, gentle tone. Keep your sentences short and easy to follow.
Sounds you don’t even notice might cause your child anxiety. For instance, at bath time, the rushing of water filling the tub may bother her, so try filling the tub with the bathroom door closed before your child goes into the room. (This has the added benefit of warming up the room so undressing for the bath is easier for her.) Another bathroom sound your child might find distressing is the sound of splashing in the toilet bowl, so you may want to put toilet paper in the bowl before he uses it.
Minimize distractions
Where your child sits to do her homework or other tasks requiring focus makes a difference, too. Give her a space away from noisy appliances (i.e., air conditioner, sink, refrigerator, dishwasher) and spaces (bathroom), and from doors which get opened and closed a lot.
Out and about
For times when the environment is not under your control, you can give your child noise-reducing headphones or earplugs. These can be useful at school, for times such as recess, gym, and the lunchtime cafeteria, and in daily life when your family is out shopping, going to restaurants, parties, etc., or if your child enjoys going to the movies but finds the volume overwhelming. The headphones will reduce the volume, and if that’s not enough to ease your child’s anxiety, you can give him an iPod or old smartphone with his favorite music.  
Bonus twofer
Finally, here’s a two-for-one strategy: an aquarium can provide both auditory and visual calming, with its gentle bubbling and swimming fish. If taking care of fish is going to be a source of anxiety for you (you have more than enough to be responsible for already!), try a table fountain so you don’t have to remember to feed more creatures every day.
Olfactory (smell) adaptations
These strategies target your child’s sensitivity to odors. It’s more than merely not liking the smell of a bathroom (after all, who does). Our olfactory system processes more than just smell; it is linked to memories and emotions and thus can greatly impact our mood and behavior. If your child has an over-responsive olfactory system, odors are more intense and odor associations are more extreme — he may be distracted to the point of distress by smells you don’t even notice. 
Surrounded by smell
Our homes and daily lives are filled with objects and areas which generate many odors: public restrooms, gymnasiums, stores, restaurants, other people’s homes, and even our own homes — we use many strong-smelling chemicals on a daily basis without even thinking about them: detergents, cleaners, perfumes, soaps and more.
These and other smells may cause your sensory child to gag and even throw up. She may refuse to touch things so the smell doesn’t cling to her hands. Here are some strategies to employ:
Avoid odors
Don’t give your child scented markers or any toys or products with strong odors of any kind. Don’t use perfumes, colognes or sprays without testing first to see how your child reacts. Don’t clean with strong chemicals; try the most natural products on the market. Look for unscented products if any scent is intolerable. Open windows while cooking and avoid cooking anything with a strong smell when your child is home. Steer clear of cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke (note that the odor often clings to a smoker; your child may not be able to tolerate being around someone who smokes).
The great cover-up
If any undesired odors are inevitable (for example, sometimes it’s not possible to cook fish for dinner when your child is out of the home), try adding scents that are pleasing to your child in order to cover up the trigger odor. You can use lotions, scented candles (no unsupervised lit candles please; letting your child hold and sniff an unlit candle can work just as well), oils, diffusers, aromatherapy, etc.
Out and about
Unlike the unobtrusive public strategies mentioned above for handling unpleasant visual and auditory stimuli, you can’t exactly hand your son a clothespin for his nose. You have to use a more publicly-acceptable strategy to filter out any intolerable odors. For instance, you can apply a lotion, cream, or scented chapstick under his nostrils before entering an odorous environment. 
If that’s not lasting long enough, she can carry a pocket-sized lotion, cream, etc. to breathe in at will in order to mask a smell. If spilling is an issue, you can put it on a handkerchief or other small piece of fabric, or give her a small scented candle (but not in a glass container, please). Of course, you will have to experiment to find an odor which relaxes her. Vanilla and lavender tend to work for a lot of people, but if that doesn’t work, use any scent your child enjoys.
Looking ahead:
In the next post, we’ll discuss the proactive accommodations you can make to your child’s person and his personal space to make his life run more smoothly.
What environmental accommodations and adaptations do you make for your child? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.