Children on the autism spectrum often require support to process sensory input. Some children display strong reactions to stimuli, while others tend to show little response to input. This may vary from day to day or even hour to hour.
Children who have a strong reaction to sensory stimuli may avoid the bathroom because of the sound of the flushing toilet and the hand dryer. These children may be very particular about clothing and insist on wearing the same shirt every day. Children who are under-responsive to sensory stimuli may not notice food on their chin or seem oblivious to a cut or bruise.
These children may seem sluggish or sleepy. Whatever a child’s sensory pattern, there are ways to support sensory regulation which will allow the child to cope and function more successfully.
To regulate the body, children need small sensory snacks throughout the day. Building in sensory regulation opportunities proactively may prevent escalation to a child who feels overwhelmed by input. When supporting a child with a calming sensory snack, the environment also needs to be calm and quiet.
Follow an alerting sensory strategy with a short calming strategy to help the student control his/her body before moving on to the next activity. It is extremely important to structure any sensory break with specific guidelines and clear end time. Use a timer, a song, or counting to signal the completion of any sensory activity that may be open-ended.
Occupational therapists are trained in the area of sensory regulation. If your child receives occupational therapy, it is important to collaborate with the therapist to maximize sensory strategies.
The following are generalized statements. All children will not respond to sensory strategies in the same manner. It is important to take note of your child’s reaction to the sensory input to determine if the activity is appropriate.
The trampoline is typically alerting but can be calming due to the proprioceptive input to some kids. Weighted items and heavy work are equalizers. Your child’s sensory system, the time of day, and other factors contribute to a child’s response to sensory input.
10 Alerting Strategies
1. Trampoline jump: Jumping on the trampoline is a fantastic way to increase blood flow and attentiveness.
2. Drink water: Water wakes up our bodies. If a child doesn’t like water plain water, add some flavor with water enhancer. Drinking through a straw adds even more sensory input.
3. Dance and move: Kids love to dance, and it is great for getting hearts pumping. There are fantastic websites with music and organized dances that help structure this activity and support control.
4. Oral stimulation: Gum, mints, or lollipops provide alerting input. This may support a child who constantly chews on his or her clothing and pencils. It may even help a child who talks excessively.
5. Exercise ball: Bouncing on an exercise ball provides stimulation. Use a milk crate, purchase a ball with “feet” or purchase a ball chair to add structure for use in the classroom.
6. Lighting: Turn up the lighting to give the visual system a jolt.
7. Scents: Citrus and mint scents are typically alerting. Wearing scented lotions around a child can provide them with this input, as well as candles or warmers at home.
8. Exercise: Any type of exercise is alerting. Structure a routine with visuals or use a website with structured movement songs. Setting up an obstacle course is a fun way to add this movement to the day.
9. Wobble cushion: A wobble cushion provides tactile input as the child sits. These are great for use in a classroom or at the dinner table.
10. Bare feet: So many kids with autism love to be shoeless. One reason may be the tactile input received from our bare feet. Feeling the cold, hard tile or going out after a rain and stepping in puddles is a fun way to gain this input.
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10 Calming Strategies
1. Calming touch: Many kids calm by touching or rubbing objects with different textures. This may include a sequin pillow or clothing, a tub with rice, hard or soft Velcro attached to a desk, a stuffed animal or a live animal!
2. Minimal visual Input: Create an area with soft or natural lighting. Structure a work environment without clutter and minimal visuals.
3. Exercise ball: Use an exercise ball to provide deep pressure input. Roll the ball over the child’s body while continually monitoring the child’s comfort level with the pressure.
4. Weighted blanket: Use a weighted blanket while completing another activity, such as reading a book. This allows the mind to be occupied while the body receives the calming input.
5. Swing: Many children like to lie, tummy down, on a platform swing with their heads hanging over the edge. This allows a different type of input than sitting up on a swing. Sitting up on a playground swing is also calming when moving in a back and forth motion, however; spinning on this swing is alerting.
6. Scooter board: Place pieces of an inset puzzle on one side of the room and place the puzzle board on the opposite side. Direct the child lie, belly down, on the scooter board and move back and forth across the room, picking up one puzzle piece and placing it into the board until the puzzle is complete.
7. Push-ups: Chair and wall push-ups provide deep sensory input. Pushing up on a chair is something a child can be taught to do during class to stay focused and engaged.
8. Squeeze: Many children like the feeling of being tightly squeezed. This input may be provided in multiple ways including a hug, rolling up in a blanket, rolling up in a gym mat, compression clothing, a stocking hat or earmuffs.
9. Breathing strategies: Find a breathing technique that works for your child. Multiple websites provide visuals that go along with breathing strategies to help children understand this activity.
10. Headphones: Noise-cancelling headphones help a child remain calm in a noisy or chaotic environment.
This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life