Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and/or autism can experience either an overload of sensory input, or be sensory seeking. Both of these can cause overwhelm and lead to feelings of anxiety or stress, which is why it’s important to involve sensory breaks in these children’s schedules.
Since autism is a spectrum, we find that some autistic children have some form of sensory sensitivity, while others don’t. Some children who aren’t necessarily on the spectrum can also experience sensitivity to some sensory input. Regardless of whether your child is on the autism spectrum, has a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder, or both, sensory breaks are important if you’re a parent to a child who has some form of sensory sensitivity and is in need of time to cool off.
The symptoms of sensory sensitivity differ for every child, and as a parent, whatever challenge your child experiences, implementing strategies for a sensory break is crucial for your peace of mind, as well as the wellbeing of your child. You could also call a sensory break a “brain break”, because you’re essentially helping your child’s brain do the job of sensory regulation that is more difficult than the average person capable of regulating his/her sensory input.
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The added benefit of sensory breaks is they teach your child adaptive ways to self-regulate (which is crucial as your child grows older).
One important rule to follow before attempting any strategy is figuring out what your child’s sensory experience is. Pay attention to what sort of input triggers your child—you can do this by monitoring the event that occurs before your child’s reaction, and truly observe how your child reacts.
It is often easy to perceive your child’s behavior as “naughty” or disobedient. Understandably, as parents, you’re probably dealing with a thousand tasks at any given time of the day; you could be frustrated, or your day may not be going as planned. But, paying attention to your child’s needs can relieve a lot of that pressure. Very often, children just need their parents to listen to their needs, especially when they don’t know how to communicate them.
When you’ve understood the areas of sensory input your child battles with, or has trouble processing, then implementing these strategies become a lot easier. Remember, you are your child’s best expert, so when it comes to implementing any form of strategy, do what you feel is best for your child!
Implementing sensory breaks
If you’re ever unsure of what a sensory break is, think of recess on a school day. Sensory breaks, also referred to as sensory diet, are designed to provide your child with the necessary break he/she needs to be more productive, or self-regulate, and reset from a day of learning filled with different sensory input.
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For children who are sensory avoidant, perhaps a quiet environment or least sensory-triggering environment is the type of sensory break they need. On the other hand, children who are sensory seekers may benefit from gross motor opportunities, or environments that have high sensory input which support their specific needs. When it comes to sensory breaks, the best recommendations would come from your child’s occupational therapist.
Some strategies for sensory breaks
1. Sensory break rooms
Whether you’re looking to implement sensory breaks at home or at school, find a set room or corner that your child will be conditioned to recognize. Since most children with autism benefit from routine, having a set sensory break area will be much easier for your child to implement on his/her own.
2. Sensory “feel good” snacks
I know your first thought jumps to food (who doesn’t like a good snack right?!) However, by sensory snacks, I refer to those “feel good” activities your child loves or enjoys, i.e. the tools that can be used to support your child’s sensory needs.
These sensory tools might include: a weighted lap pad, squishy toy, fidget toys, trampoline, and all the sensory items that help regulate your child. It could be a hanger, a specific item of interest that your child is particularly drawn to, or movement activities.
Your child’s occupational therapist will be the go-to person who can recommend effective sensory activities for your child’s sensory needs.
3. Get moving (movement breaks)
Sometimes body movement is all your child needs. Activities such as jumping jacks, running, crawling through tunnels i.e. under kitchen chairs, biking, ball pits, yoga moves, etc. are great ways to get your child all the proprioceptive inputs he/she needs.
4. Noise-blocking headphones
If your child is sensitive to sound, and is exposed to sound stimuli for a period of time, a moment to block out auditory inputs could be all he/she needs to regulate and be productive again.
Every strategy implemented needs to follow a strict schedule. Although your child may sometimes need a sensory break earlier or later than usual, having a set sensory spot/area will help your child be independent in implementing the strategies in place that help him/her regulate.
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You may also find at times that previously successful sensory break strategies no longer work; especially if you find that the sensory breaks in place are occurring too frequently. This could be a sign your child isn’t getting enough relief from those sensory breaks. If this is the case, revisit your strategies and readapt.
If you’re seeking some programs or resources, the Self-Regulation Alert Program might be worth checking out. It is designed by two occupational therapists to help children, and adults find ways to self-regulate. Alternatively, sensory integration therapy can also be a great starting point to address your child’s sensory needs.
Filippone, N. (September, 2021). Sensory Solutions: How to Coexist with Family Members with Differing Sensory Needs, https://autismparentingsummit.com/