Every child learns through play, it is an innate and natural part of their development. For this reason, the use of sensory activities help kids to engage in play and interact with the environment to improve their sensory experiences.
Benefits of sensory activities for children with autism
According to Little, et al. (2015), one benefit of sensory activities is enhanced perception in auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli. This in turn supports children’s participation in activities.
Other benefits of sensory activities include:
- Improved vestibular and proprioceptive systems
- Improvement in fine motor and gross motor skills
- Improvement in social interaction
- Stimulation of the sensory and neural pathways
With all of the above in mind, this article will outline some fun sensory activities I’ve tested with my kids, for you to do at home with your children on the spectrum.
Sensory activities for students with autism
Creating your own beanbag
I noticed this summer that beanbags have made a comeback in society. In my family, they are somewhat of a staple. My two children that are on the spectrum have a tendency to throw. I learned when my oldest was young that bean bags help lessen the incidence of throwing.
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Therapists suggested buying a bean bag set. However, I never run to the store if I can build something myself. I grew up with my own workshop with saws and paint aplenty. I like to create, whether it be a story or a wooden art project, I shared this interest with my Pops. We would spend hours painting, drawing, tracing, sawing, sanding, and creating anything that came to mind. Unfortunately, Pops has passed, but I like to think that his legacy continues: When someone tells me to go out and “buy it”, I hear Pops say, “I’m not going down the road to buy a piece when I can make it in my own backyard.”
By maximizing flexibility in creativity, it offers great benefits because it allows you to engage your autistic child in an effort to support his/her/their sensory experiences.
So that is what I did. I found an old piece of wood and drilled five-inch holes in it. Then I painted it. I took a three-inch wide stick and nailed it to the back (but I recommend using a hinge so it will fold up for easy storage). For the bean bags, I used old socks and filled them with rice (do not fill them too much). You can sew them shut or knot them for quick play. I do not recommend the use of beans if you plan on using them for any length of time (weeks or more) because they can get smelly, but they work well if they remain an inside toy.
You can get theme-specific like when my daughters turned age two and three, we had a bug party. The bean bag target was painted white with flower petals painted around each hole. For the party, I purchased bumblebee and butterfly bean bags to throw at the “flowers.” The kids each got to take one home.
For everyday play, we throw socks full of rice at a blank target, but if we get bored on a rainy or cold day we cover up the target with a poster board. I cut out the holes and then let the kids decorate the background then tape it or tack it onto the wooden base. Voila! A spiffy new target.
Need for speed
Another fun activity we do is dump out the toy bins or laundry baskets and create a motor speedway. A cardboard box works well too.
You can use painter’s tape to tape a “track” for your little racers to push or pull each other in a laundry basket or toy bin. I recommend the painter’s tape on hardwood floors, tile, linoleum, and rugs that are not plush. If you want to race outside, you can use chalk to make a racetrack/speedway.
To make it a sensory experience, add weight to their lap by putting items such as bean bags, stuffed animals, or lightweight books into the basket or bin and gradually increase it. For example, have Johnny push Suzie around one lap and when you cross the finish line you can add one more item. Make sure kids take turns, so everyone has a chance to be the racer.
How does this help? Pushing and pulling are beneficial to the vestibular and the proprioceptive senses.
This idea of scented flashcards comes from The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Stock Kranowitz. She recommends using Elmer’s 3D scented glue but I couldn’t find any scented glue anywhere until finally finding some at Walmart. It cost me $2.47 to buy scented glitter glue, and I already had index cards at home. I took a regular Crayola marker and wrote the letters “A” and “B.” Then, I squirted the glue on top of where I had written with a marker.
I liked this brand because it was very easy to squeeze the glue and get a steady stream. You can smell the scents as soon as the glue comes out of the bottle. The scent is still there after it dries and the kids can feel the raised effect of the glue.
How is this helpful? According to Carol Stock Kranowitz:
- Smelling strong odors improves olfactory discrimination
- Touching and seeing the scented glue numbers and letters integrates tactile and visual sensations with smells, thereby increasing memory, attention, and association
- Writing and drawing with the glue sticks builds fine motor skills
Of course, there are several other sensory activities that can support your child’s sensory experience. The best activities always involve those that target your autistic child’s specific needs.
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Sensory Play Ideas
As a parent, it is important to do what you must for your child. After all, you are your child’s expert!
Little, L. M., Ausderau, K., Sideris, J., & Baranek, G. T. (2015). Activity Participation and Sensory Features Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45(9), 2981–2990. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2460-3