Sensory activities for autism can help improve a range of developmental issues including cognitive development, improved coordination and increased concentration – just to name a few.
It stimulate the 5 senses i.e., touch, smell, sight, taste, and sound as well as the vestibular (responsible for our sense of balance) and proprioceptive (keeps track of and controls the different parts of our bodies) systems. It is essential for all kids to learn how their bodies work, and how to process and interpret the world around them by helpings kids to learn, build language, promote social interaction & develops motor skill.
Benefits of sensory activities for autistic children
Helps to engage with all of their senses in a particular activity, more neural pathways are actually created in the brain. Sensory activities can benefit all children, but are of particular help to those on the autism spectrum.Sensory play offers a natural (and fun) way for kids to discover, examine, and understand the world around them, which in turn helps develop their:
• Language skills: Kids develop their vocabulary by describing the sensory play activity and discuss their experience of the activity.
• Fine motor skills: Manipulating small objects not only aids in hand-eye coordination, but it also helps in strengthening the muscles in a child’s body, which in turn helps to develop their fine motor skills.
• Gross motor skills: Encouraging kids to practice their running, jumping, and throwing skills through pretend sensory play is an excellent way to develop their gross motor skills by strengthening their large muscles through fun body movements.
• Social skills: Engaging in pretend play with peers doesn’t just build little imaginations. It also teaches important skills like sharing and taking turns.
• Self-control. Sensory play helps the kids to use the senses, thus better empowering them to remember and recall information.
Sensory Processing .Sensory processing difficulties are a key issue for many children with an ASD. It is vital to consider the possible impact of this and how to address these issues.
What is it Sensory Processing Disorder? Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD (also referred to as Sensory Integration Disorder or Sensory Integration Dysfunction) is a neurological disorder causing difficulties with taking in, processing and responding to sensory information from the environment and within your own body (visual, auditory, tactile, olfaction, gustatory, vestibular and proprioception). This can be Hypo Reactive or Hyper Reactive. For example: one child may show no sign of pain when they hurt themselves whilst another slightest touch can cause pain.
People with an ASD tell us about their sensory difficulties Temple Grandin (in her autobiography) writes: “Ordinary clothes itched and scratched. Behaviour Problems could have been avoided by simple clothing modifications.” “My eyes are sensitive to light, and I squint.” “Although my hearing was normal, noises overwhelmed me. I covered my ears to block out sounds.”
How does it affect learning? For those with SPD, sensory information may be sensed and perceived in a way that is different from most other people. Unlike blindness or deafness, sensory information can be received by people with SPD, the difference is that information is often registered, interpreted and processed differently by the brain. SPD can affect not only how they move and learn, but also how they behave, how they play and make friends, and especially how they feel about themselves.
Why undertake sensory programmes? As stated above, SPD can have a huge impact on learning and behavior. By creating an appropriate sensory programme you can reduce fears, confusion and distress and provide long term change.
11 Common Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder or Difficulties Sometimes you need to be a detective to recognise sensory difficulties as the underlying cause of a problem.
Here is a list that may help you identify children’s underlying sensory difficulties: 1. Extra sensitive to touch – they don’t like to be touched or can’t be touched enough. 2. Sensitivity to sounds – they may cover their ears when the same noises don’t bother others. 3. Picky eaters – they will only eat a limited range of foods and those they are familiar with. 4. Movement – unusual body posture, seek constant movement or have difficulty with movement. 5. Hyperactivity – they can’t sit still during the day or get to sleep at night, or calm themselves down. 6. Fear of crowds – crowded areas bothers them to the point of frequent public meltdowns. 7. Poor fine or gross motor skills – they have difficulty with handwriting or kicking a ball. 8. Excessive risk taking – they may be unaware of touch or pain or heights or danger. 9. Avoidance of sensory stimulation – they won’t put their hands in anything messy such as glue, clay or mud. They only wear certain clothes. 10. Trouble with balance – they may be accident-prone or fall more often than others and have a preference for sedentary activities. 11. Easily distracted – particularly by noise, movement, and touch.
The nature of ASD is such that many children will be over or under reactive to sensory stimuli. The latest Diagnostic Standards Manual DSM-5 that came out in May 2013 finally recognised that sensory processing difficulties are a part of ASD. Some children will have a dual diagnosis of a Sensory Processing Disorder. Others it will just be part of their ASD.
It is easier to change the environment than change the child.
Simple changes in the environment can make a big difference to a child’s engagement and learning outcomes. You could spend all day asking a child to “sit still” on the mat or you could give them a “sensory mat” to sit on that helps them sit still.
Often sensory can be the underlying cause of so much distress and behaviour. Children can be hypersensitive (over sensitive) or hyposensitive (under sensitive) to touch, taste, smell, sound, sight and/or movement. Occupational Therapists are normally the specialists who assess children’s sensory processing and implement programmes to regulate their senses or address sensory needs. In my experience many children need sensory adaptions in the classroom.
By regulating the amount and intensity of stimulation it helps to keep the nervous system calm, organised and focused. Children can be under-aroused and sluggish one moment, and overwhelmed and anxious the next. Meeting sensory needs can include using sensory tools to regulate behaviour or adapting activities to reduce sensory stimulation. For example some children can sit for longer periods with a sensory tool/fidget tool. While other children may need clothing adaptions, e.g. socks with no over-locking for them to wear shoes and socks. See below for some great adaptions. Sensory Tools
Remember just like glasses – everyone has their own script, each child will have their own.
10 Sensory Activities for EVERYONE
- Play dough: hide objects or little wobbly eyes in the dough and get the kids to find.
- Put on shoes and socks; find big ones that are easy to put on at first.
- Chinese Whispers: just start with one word.
- Play with toys which have sounds, vibrate or light up.
- Marble works.
- Pop-up books.
- Bean bag activities: throwing, catching, carrying etc.
- Mirror activities: dress up, make faces.
- Put out a range of textures on the ground: sand, bubble wrap, carpet, foam pieces etc. Start with shoes on then take off shoes and socks! Or even crawl over.
USING SENSORY TOYS TO IMPROVE LEARNING AND BEHAVIOUR
Children with an autism spectrum disorder often seek out sensory activities, eg chewing, twirling, and fidgeting. They find specific sensory experiences calming, eg rocking, flicking, visual patterns, flapping. Holding an object in their hands can often enhance learning. For example, if given a sensory toy to hold at mat time a child can sit for longer, concentrate better, be less disruptive to peers, is calmer and has reduced anxiety levels. Sensory toys can also replace inappropriate behaviours.
Is there one MAGIC WAND to improve learning and behaviour?
So many teachers and parents of children with ASD ask me this question. The simple answer is no, because a combination of strategies is required, but if there was ONE idea that makes a big difference and is so easy to use it would be using what is called a fidget toy. The irony is that it is the strategy that is most resisted by educators.
A small ‘fidget toy’ in the hand of a majority of children with ASD will dramatically improve their learning and behaviour.
I acknowledge that the idea that playing with a ‘toy’ improving concentration is the opposite experience for teachers and parents with non-ASD children.
For children with ASD this strategy can be a MAGIC WAND. It calms them, reduces stress, and reduces distractions, therefore increasing learning readiness and promoting good behaviour. Many children with ASD seek movement to calm and process, by allowing the child to actually move their fingers using a “fidget toy” it actually increases learning.
A good indicator of whether a child needs fidget toys is “WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU REMOVE THEM?”
If you remove the toy and you see other behaviours emerge this indicates the child actually “seeks” this and “needs” it. For example the behaviors you will see could include:
• Will they pick their fingers? • Will they chew their collar or hat string? • Will they start moving their legs, body? • Will they be easily distracted by other children?