Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by several traits including sensory sensitivities. Children, regardless of whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent, learn skills such as motor skills, fine motor skills, and social interaction through interaction with the environment which usually involves play. Play activities enable children to engage with different textures as the child discovers their surroundings.
For some autistic children, the sensory requirements of play cause an adverse reaction due to their sensory defensiveness. This can lead to reluctance to participate in a variety of contexts. Tactile (touch) sensitivity is one of the many types of sensory defensiveness experienced by some autistic children.
Tackling the adverse reaction due to sensory sensitivity can help autistic children become more adaptive in their everyday engagements. For this reason, tactile play for children with tactile defensiveness can be beneficial.
What is tactile play?
Tactile play is a form of play that engages the touch senses. A child can be sensitive to certain materials, or certain food textures. The degree of tactile sensitivity varies for each child and the experience is unique especially with autistic children.
Tactile play encourages the child to explore those sensitivities to enable engagement in a fun and familiar way. Sensory sensitivities can impact how the child plays, playing on their own is common with these children, hence tactile play is an effective medium to combine interventions with activities.
How do tactile interventions work?
Treatments or interventions that involve tactile play are targeted at helping autistic children engage with their tactile defensiveness. Since children with tactile defensiveness are sensitive to specific textures, these forms of interventions set goals and teaching programs that are specific for the child.
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It is important to note that although a child on the spectrum may be sensitive to one form of tactile input, they might tolerate another form of tactile input. For example, a child may be sensitive to the texture of cotton materials but they would not experience an adverse reaction to touching a wooden surface. Hence, interventions need to assess which form of tactile input the child struggles with most.
Tactile play with sand
One of the great benefits of tactile play with sand is that it not only engages the touch sense but also involves senses such as sight, hearing, smell, and movement. This helps the child gain a holistic experience as their sensory system is engaged, therefore strengthening their sensory modulations.
When playing with sand, other items can be added to the sand such as shells, toys, etc. By doing so, the child is not just engaging with one form of texture i.e. sand but also other textures including those the child is defensive towards.
Sensory corner: a case study of an autism mom
While planning sensory activities for a children’s class that I hold, I stumbled upon. The writer had the great idea of combining sand with paint.
In the summer I fully support my kids getting messy and then washing them off with the hose. I liked the idea because it didn’t require many supplies.
Here’s what was needed:
- Sand – either craft sand or beach sand will work just fine
- Paint – I used acrylic because that’s what I had on hand and it’s cheap (you could always use Elmer’s glue)
- Paper – You will want something sturdy. I used Creatology’s Paint Pad Paper
All you do is mix paint and about a tablespoon or two of sand in a bowl (I used plastic cups for easy clean up). Dump it on the paper and let the kids spread it all over the paper. When it dries, flip over the paper and trace different shapes on the smooth back. Then cut out your shapes.
Introducing the play
Some children may not want to touch the paint mix, so don’t force them. It may help to let them feel the ingredients separately before mixing them together.
You could say: “Here, feel the paint. Here, feel the sand. Now, feel the sand paint.” If they can’t tolerate the feel then encourage them to spread the sand paint with a paintbrush, a stick, or a smooth-edged rock.
Adjusting the central nervous system (CNS) to the texture of something can take weeks, months, or even years for some people with sensory issues. Remind yourself that it is a process and do NOT force the issue.
For instance, it took me an entire summer to acclimate my daughter to the texture of sand. Some people wondered why I would even bother. The answer is simple—I love the beach. I have always vacationed at the beach and I wanted my daughter to have that tradition.
Obviously, without being able to touch or feel sand I couldn’t bring her to the beach with me. We didn’t go on vacation for many years, but I am very happy to say that now we have started going to the beach every summer and all my kids love it.
Some personal tips and tricks
The process I used was simple. Just think in baby steps. Babies do not walk overnight and neither will a severe sensory aversion. For the first week, I would put a toy that interested my daughter in the sandbox. This was to get her to go near the sandbox. Sometimes she would have to step in the box to grab the toy, but the sand didn’t have to come in contact with her skin at all because she had shoes on.
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Best Sensory Strategies for Handling Tactile Defensiveness
The next week, I bought her new sand toys to entice her to play with the sand. She would stand on the outside of the sandbox and shovel the sand into a bucket. Again, I will remind you that she never actually touched the sand but would instead use sand tools.
The following week, I slowly convinced her to sit on the edge of the sandbox while scooping and shoveling.
It is important that you show your child that it is ok and safe to get in and handle the sand and sit in it. Lead by example.
The next week she actually used her hand to pat the sand down in a bucket.
She quickly wiped off her hands and we needed to go wash her hands, but I kept giving her positive reinforcement. Also, I pointed out to her that she wasn’t hurt. Although she was uncomfortable for a few minutes, she was able to touch it without a negative repercussion (such as vomiting) and her goal was met. She finally made her own sandcastle. I made a huge deal out of it. I took pictures and hung them up on the fridge.
Sensory play is an effective tool for children with all kinds of sensory sensitivities. If your child is sensitive to certain types of tactile (touch) stimuli, applying interventions such as tactile play with sand can be a useful strategy, provided that you take it step by step. It would not serve a purpose if your child is overwhelmed with the sudden exposure to the sensory input.
Break down each session, and don’t hesitate to consult your child’s occupational therapist for ideas on how to diversify sensory play with sand. Make the interventions work for your child.
P.S. Don’t forget to have fun, too!
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
Watts, T., Stagnitti, K., & Brown, T. (2014). Relationship between play and sensory processing: a systematic review. The American journal of occupational therapy: official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 68(2), e37–e46.