If your child has autism, you are probably quite familiar with sensory processing issues. Although sensory processing and autism are two separate entities, they often co-exist and each can further complicate the other. Oftentimes, children with autism have greater difficulties regulating their emotions and behaviors because processing all the sensory stimuli in their world can be very complicated and overwhelming for them. Their sensory systems are frequently in “overdrive” in order to process the sensory input from their environments, and too much time spent in “overdrive” can exhaust the child and deplete them of their ability to appropriately handle frustration, disappointment, or anxiety. When a child’s sensory system becomes depleted and a new stressor comes along, the result is oftentimes a meltdown in behavior, as their “sensory batteries” are exhausted. So, how can you help your child “re-charge his/her batteries” and give the sensory system a fighting chance to appropriately process the complex world?
Well, you feed your child’s sensory system a large batch of cookie dough! What? Not edible cookie dough, of course. Engage your child in this calming “cookie dough” activity, and it can help him/her to organize the sensory system, relax, and be better suited to handle life’s stressors. This activity works because your child (the cookie dough) receives deep pressure and proprioceptive input from the “rolling pin” (the therapy ball). Deep pressure and proprioceptive input elicit a calming response in the body because they can lower stress levels, reassure the body of its position in space, and facilitate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, which are two neurotransmitters responsible for mood and behavior regulation (Buckley-Reen & Dickson, 2015 and research from Edelson, et al.).
- Therapy ball
- Bean bags (optional)
How to Play
- Have your child lay on his belly on soft carpet or a mat.
- Tell your child that she is going to be “cookie dough” and she can pick out the “ingredients” that she wants in her cookie dough.
- Put the ingredients into the cookie dough by lightly dropping weighted beanbags (or lightly pat the child’s back with your hands if you do not have beanbags) for approximately 1-2 minutes (or as tolerated) until all the “ingredients” are in the cookie dough.*Note, this step provides additional proprioceptive input, but some children may not tolerate the unexpected touch well. If your child does not tolerate this step well, just skip it and complete the next step.
- Finally, roll the cookie dough out by applying pressure on top of the therapy ball and then slowly rolling down from the child’s back towards her feet. Ask the child how the pressure feels as you are pressing down on the ball, and adjust if she asks for more or less. It is important to start at the top of the child’s back, not on the child’s neck or head, and roll the ball downwards. After you get to the child’s feet, pick the ball up off the child and repeat rather than rolling it up towards the child’s back again. Roll the cookie dough out for 5-10 minutes or as tolerated.
Start with the ball on the child’s back
Then roll ball downwards toward the child’s feet
When Should You Do This Activity?
This activity is great for so many different reasons, but especially for increasing frustration tolerance with life’s stressors by calming anxious nerves and settling down unorganized, overly active movement. It’s also a perfect transition activity when moving from high-energy work (i.e., running, jumping, climbing, etc.) into calmer activities like homework, class time, or bedtime. It is also very beneficial to use if your child is going to be entering an anxiety-provoking situation (such as. school, unfamiliar places, change in routine, crowded areas, etc.). Since it is a great activity to calm down before sleeping, you can now say “yes” to your child when they ask to have cookie dough before bed! Enjoy!
Buckley- Reen, A. & Dickson, D. (2015). The Whole Child: S.A.N.E. Strategies for Success Sleep, Activities, Nutrition Environments [Lecture].
Edelson, S., Goldberg Edelson, M., Kerr, D., & Grandin, T. (1999). Behavioral and Physiological Effects of Deep Pressure on Children With Autism: A Pilot Study Evaluating the Efficacy of Grandin’s Hug Machine. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53, 143-152.
Amy Smith is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 10 years of experience working with children with autism and specializes in sensory integration interventions. She is the creator of KidsPlaySmarter.com, a free website with resources and ideas to improve your child’s sensory processing skills, fine and gross motor skills, handwriting skills, and overall success in daily life. She is offering occupational therapy consultation services online via FaceTime and Skype. If interested, go to: http://www.kidsplaysmarter.com/ask-the-ot/
This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future