Monthly Archives: July 2011

Helping Your Child with Sensory Issues Enjoy Swimming

Are you caught in the “heat dome” as they’re calling it? Do you want your child to enjoy swimming but are finding she’s resistant due to sensory issues? The following is from a newsletter I created a while back, which will give you some ideas on how to make swimming, pools, and lakes more sensory friendly for your child with sensory processing disorder and/or autism.


Why is it that kids with sensory issues so often heartily take to swimming despite the sensory challenges that this activity can present? Perhaps it is because swimming offers sensory input they yearn for along with a sense of independence, and because many kids, neurotypical or not, just find it fun to splash around. As a sport, swimming allows a child to avoid competing with other children and instead compete against himself or herself. What is more, swimming is an important skill for anyone and great exercise.


But what if your child resists swimming or learning to swim? Here’s how to get around some of the swimming challenges sensory kids face so that they can truly enjoy the experience.


Smells. Chlorinated water has a powerful smell and lake water can have a distinct odor that may disturb some sensory kids. Check out your options, which may include swimming in a pool that is cleaned by an ozone generator or reverse osmosis method.


Noises and movement. Kids will often squeal, run, and splash near or in the water. For a child with auditory and visual processing differences, such unexpected and sharp sounds and movements from others can provoke anxiety. Outdoor pools and swimming areas at least crowded times may be more tolerable. Call the pool or waterpark ahead of time and ask when it’s least crowded.


Temperature. You may be surprised by your sensory child’s ability to tolerate the coldest water if he is eager to swim, but some kids with sensory issues may be very reluctant to enter a pool or water that is cold or is a very different temperature from the air. If your child will tolerate a shower beforehand, you might have her shower and gradually adjust the temperature to make it colder and prepare her for the chilly plunge. Teach her that she can get her feet in first, then splash water on to her arms, and gradually immerse all her body parts, giving her a sense of control over the feeling.


Getting his face wet. Very often, the biggest challenge for a child with sensory processing issues is to get her face (and eyes, or eyelids) wet. You can work on this at home in the tub or shower, slowly getting her used to the feeling by working with a shower head, a big cup for pouring water, and a washrag she holds over her face to slow down the feeling of her face becoming wet. Wearing goggles and masks often is very soothing to kids because these items keep the child’s eyes dry, help her see better in the water, and provide a nice amount of calming pressure against the back of the head. You may find that the child with sensory issues likes to wear goggles or a mask and swim underwater rather than on the surface where her face is alternately in and out of the water.


Suits and hair. Some kids can’t bear the feel of loose, floppy wet hair or suits. Fortunately, there are many options for swimwear and bathing caps, many of which are calmingly snug and yet stylish. Try the short-sleeve, snug, two-piece surfer suits for boys and girls which have the added benefit of protecting against harmful UV rays by providing more coverage.


Footwear. Walking on rough and even hot surfaces such as sidewalks, asphalt in parking lots, grass, sand, and cement near pools can feel excruciating to a sensory kid. Flip flops, sandals, and water shoes are likely to help, but also consider massaging your child’s foot providing deep pressure or even vibration from a vibrator or vibrating toy if that’s tolerable to him, before he sets foot on these surfaces. Park in the shade if you can (such as under a tree or awning) and walk where walking surfaces are likely to be cooler.


Motor planning. Swimming takes motor planning skills, which many sensory kids find challenging. Try private rather than group lessons, and look for an instructor who can break down strokes into various parts and who teaches in a way that your child can both understand and tolerate. For example, one instructor may instruct using touch while another may simply demonstrate and use words to describe physical motions. Sit in on a session if you can to see how your child is able to follow that particular instructor’s directions. You might also check out some of the  instructional videos on YouTube to get ideas for helping your child learn to swim.


Overstimulation. Some kids may withdraw at the intensity of the swimming experience (especially at a crowded, indoor pool cleaned by chlorine, or a busy water park). However, some may get overstimulated and need lots of deep pressure input to “take it down a notch.” Hugging and gentle, subtle massage of limbs, wrapping the child in a tight towel, and breaks to go to a quieter, less stimulating area often help. You may need to inform the instructor that your child needs to wriggle a lot while waiting her turn for personal instruction or demonstrating her strokes; this activity may be necessary for your child to be able to focus once her turn comes.


Safety. Every pool or beach has safety rules. Find where they are posted and have your child read them aloud to you, or read them to her. While we may take for granted such “obvious” rules as “do not run on the wet surfaces” or “no diving in shallow areas,” your child will need to have them repeated for the rules to sink in, so take the time to read them with her. Then too, always err on the side of caution and never leave your child unsupervised near water even if he has floatation devices on him or near him (in fact, floating devices may provide a false sense of security). Know where your child is at all times and be sure there is a lifeguard on duty.


Have a wonderful swimming experience!

Kids with SPD, whether sensory seekers or sensory avoiders, may LOVE swimming!

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Filed under exercise and movement for sensory kids, family fun, Practical tips for sensory issues, swimming, tactile sensitivity

Sensitive Scalp? Hairbrushes for Sensory Kids and Adults

Does your sensory child have a sensitive scalp? I still remember the tears and pain of having my waist-length, Brady girl hair brushed back in the 1970s. My son has scalp sensitivities, as does my friend’s teenage daughter, so I was eager to try out a couple of hairbrushes designed for sensitive scalps.


The Goody Ouchless® brush has been available for a few years but has a new design with a gel handle. The core feature of this plastic brush is plastic bristles with rounded tips that retract into the plastic handle very easily when they meet with pressure. This offers a great deal of “give” when brushing, reducing tugging at the scalp. The gel handle gives a bit under pressure, and my sensory son finds it pleasurable to hold (plus, the extra input it provides by shaping itself to the person’s hand may be helpful for some sensory kids, too).


The Knot Genie ® is very new. It’s shaped like a horse’s curry comb and has ultra soft bristles. As with the Goody Ouchless, the plastic bristles have a lot of “give” to reduce tugging at the scalp. However, there are more bristles, closer together, and they are shorter and have more give than the ones on the Goody.


My son preferred the Goody handle, but liked both brushes. Like him, I have fine hair, but I wear mine long. I’ve been using the Goody for a while along with my old trick of starting by brushing the ends and working my way up to the scalp so as not to worsen any snarls on the downstroke (I learned that in my Jan Brady days). The Knot Genie doesn’t give scalp stimulation, but I could brush all the way from my scalp to the ends with no wincing whatsoever. I do find the handle awkward to use even though I have fairly big hands. If my hair were longer and less layered, I’d definitely use the Knot Genie more than the Goody Ouchless®, though.


My friend’s daughter has shoulder length, straight, coarse hair. She absolutely loved the Knot Genie and said it was odd at first not to be able to feel the bristles. She had no problems with the handle and is definitely going to use it. She wishes she’d had it years ago—she, too, remembers the tears and pain of long, snarled hair. I thought it was interesting that despite her coarser hair, the brush did work for detangling.

Goody Ouchless Hairbrush can be great for kids with sensory issues


The Knot Genie has super-soft bristles for sensitive scalps


Knot Genie is shaped a bit like a horse's curry comb

I want to thank Tricia Saunders, mom of a sensory kid who sells the Knot Genie (as well as super soft clothing for sensitive kids) on her site,, for the free Knot Genie brushes to try. If you’d like to buy one, check out her site. If you’d like to try the Goody Ouchless, you might find it in your local drugstore, or you can buy it via  I notice they now make a child-sized one, too, which you can buy HERE, via Amazon/ but I’m not sure if it has the gel handle.


Have you used either brush? What do you think?



Filed under affordable sensory items, grooming, hairbrushing, haircuts, Practical tips for sensory issues, sensory processing disorder, sensory seeking head, tactile issues head, tactile sense, tactile sensitivity,

Special Education, School Accommodations, and the 4 Cs

The New York Times has an interesting article on special education accommodations in two highly praised NYC charter schools. Schools that receive federal funding must provide special education services (although a notable exception is the voucher/”choice” program in Milwaukee Public Schools; there is a lawsuit pending because the “choice” isn’t really a “choice” if your child has an IEP–the schools get to cherry pick and they rarely take special ed students). Regardless of where you are able to get your child into school, the accommodations for his disability need to be appropriate for him. One size does not fit all! 


How do you work with a school to get the right accommodations for your special education child?  The four Cs: Curiosity, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.


The article talks about two children who are highly distractible. Movement, such as a walk in the hall a few times a day, may be enough for one particular child to stay focused in a classroom of 23 children. For another child, it may not be enough. Also, let’s not forget that with sensory processing disorder, some kids are underaroused and some are overaroused. The underaroused ones may be distracted but very quiet about it–you often find them draped over a chair in the back of the room, picking at their sweaters. The overaroused ones may be distracted and hyperactive–they’re the ones who get into trouble and are more likely to be removed from class. Then too, if a child is gifted, she may be picking up enough information to do well on tests, but underachieving given her talents. How do we address the needs of all students who have learning differences? We start by understanding and respecting those differences. Then we rely on curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and communication, the 4 Cs, in order to alter the learning environment and curriculum to be appropriate for the child.


What do curiosity and creativity require? Any brain scientist will tell you that to awaken these qualities that are part of executive function, you have to quiet the limbic brain where you experience fear and anger. Getting angry at a child for not behaving or performing the way you’d like her to shuts down your creativity and sense of optimism and possibility ( which opens you to a sense of curiosity and wonder). On an MRI, you can actually see the blood flow to the front of the brain, where executive function is located, reduced when blood flow increases to the back of the brain and the limbic system, where fear and anger are experienced.


What do collaboration and communication require? Emotional intelligence, respect, and good communication skills among all team members. “Mother knows best” or “leave it to the professionals” are attitudes rooted in ego, that is, rooted in the fear that “If I’m not in control, and I’m not seen as THE expert, then I’m a failure.” And what does fear do? Again, it blocks us from our curiosity and creativity. Finding a new way to approach a problem, or a better way to express ourselves, requires executive function, not limbic brain fear. Our kids need us to put aside our egos and make the best possible effort to communicate respectfully and effectively with all members of the team, including the child.

What special education accommodations does your child need? How will you work with the school to ensure they’re provided?

And as our kids get older, they need to be more involved in the decisions regarding their schooling. They need to learn to self-advocate in a socially acceptable way. If a student is assigned a regular seat in September and then, in October, becomes extremely distracted by the construction noise outside the window, and would hear better if he moved seats, will he speak up for himself? Will the teacher notice? Will the parent have any clue? Have we taught our kids to let go of fear, anger, and resentment and use their executive function to become creative (“I could ask to change seats and solve my problem”) and communicative (“I could ask nicely”) within the classroom? Do they have the confidence to express their needs appropriately and collaboratively problem solve?


What’s more, we have to remember that we’re the adults and that doesn’t just mean we make the final decisions because we’re the authority figures. It means we have to be bigger people. When a child lashes out verbally, are we being the bigger person when we immediately engage in a power struggle? Or are we being the bigger person when we take a deep breath, observe what’s going on, and use our creativity, curiosity, and collaborative skills to discover the root of the problem and address it?


Our kids are complicated, but we make life easier when we take the time to calm our own anxiety, fear, and anger and get curious, creative, collaborative, and communicative. Only then can we find the right accommodations for our special kids.


Filed under A.D.D. and A.D.H.D., classroom accommodations sensory, exercise and movement for sensory kids, IEP, schools, sensory diet at school, sensory processing disorder, special education