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There’s so much talk out there about sensory play, sensory toys, and sensory rooms in schools and daycares- but what exactly is all of this sensory talk about? Is this an autism therapy tool or method? Is it something that all children need? And the answers are: yes and yes.
Sensory play is something that we refer to in education and therapy as a type of play that relates to using the senses to engage in. More specifically, it is a type of play that transmits impulses from the sense organs to nerve centers in our brains. It is an effective method of teaching and delivering therapeutic treatment because it is a pleasant activity that children can touch, smell, see, or hear. It is also a pleasant activity for parents, caregivers, and teachers because the outcome is usually positive when it elicits smiles, calm dispositions, and new learning.
What are the main benefits of sensory play?
Sensory play has countless benefits for children who have autism. The most observable effects can be seen in four distinct areas:
Sensory play is the number one method for teaching children with autism in ABA therapy. By interacting in a playful way, it is easier to command the attention of a child who might be daydreaming or distracted by something in his/her environment. But, as soon as you get his/her hands, eyes, ears, or bodies involved with a task he/she enjoys, it puts that child at your disposal to communicate whatever it is that you are trying to teach.
For example, you can teach the concept of “fast” and “slow” in a playground setting (backyard, city park, beach, or wherever you like). You could start by running and saying, “look, I’m going fast!”, then take slow steps and say “now I’m going slow…”. Then, turn it around on them and say, “now YOU go fast….ready? Go!”. Have them run, clap for them, encourage them, and then say, “now go slowwwww……”.
Something as simple as running around the yard can teach new concepts like fast, slow, and opposites.
Add music to this and play musical chairs. Play the music, and add the commands: fast, slow, stop, go, stand up, sit down, etc. You can even turn the music up and down and teach “loud” and “soft”.
The point is that by engaging the senses of a child with autism, you are getting his/her attention to communicate with him/her, but you are also getting the attention of his/her senses that communicate with the brain to teach what each concept feels like. Whatever the child is touching, seeing, hearing, or doing comes with a connecting feeling, and it teaches the brain what it feels like for each concept.
Let’s not ignore how much fun board games, puzzles, card games, manipulatives, or learning songs can be. All of these forms of sensory play can help with problem solving, memory, and understanding new concepts. Utilizing sensory play to teach will yield amazing results in a child with autism. Especially if the sensory play is something that he/she prefers or enjoys
Social interaction is not something that autistic kids typically engage in without some sort of prompting. What better way is there to encourage social interaction than by including a child with autism in a game or activity with other children?
Think of all of the opportunities that can be used to encourage social interaction. You could be at a public park and teach your child to be aware of the other children, ask them their names, or point out that he/she needs to wait his/her turn until “Mary” goes down the slide first.
In a school setting, gather several children together at a table to play with play dough or paint. Instigate some imaginary play with the play dough- “I’m going to make pizza. What do you want on your pizza?” Pretend to eat the pizza, model communication with the other children by asking the other children if they would like a pizza. Ask the child with autism to offer his/her friends some pizza. Make one child a food server and another child a customer and play “restaurant”. Use your imagination- with the intention of promoting communication between the children who are playing together. Look for every opportunity to put your child into a setting with other children or even adults that will require some sort of reciprocation or communication while engaging his/her senses.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that parents gravitate toward sensory toys and activities is to ward off the potential tantrums that children with autism tend to engage in, especially those who are sensitive to sensory stimuli.
Children with autism can be easily overwhelmed around too many people, too much noise, being denied access to something that they want, or even fatigue. When a child with autism reaches that point and there is no remedy immediately available, this is when the potential for tantrums exists.
Scenario: you are out running errands and the battery on the iPad is depleted, and you still have two more stops. An experienced autism mom will have a survival bag ready with a variety of toys that will help to steer clear of a meltdown. This bag could contain squishy balls to squeeze, spinning toys to look at, calming bottles of glitter glue to shake and watch as they settle, flashlight or light up toys to look at, fidget cubes, kaleidoscope, vibrating neck pillows, or even chewy/stretchy toys to play with, and so on. These types of toys and engaging play activities occupy them and relieve anxiety in children with autism when they are feeling agitated or bored. The side benefit is that some sensory toys also teach, and the child’s parents often get through the rest of their tasks without a struggle.
Sense of Being – The Proprioceptive System
You may or may not have heard about the benefits of sensory play for the proprioceptive senses. Proprioceptive is a term that relates to a child’s ability to sense where his/her body begins and ends in space. Many children with autism struggle with being too aware (oversensitive), not aware enough (under sensitive or oblivious), or continually seeking more sensation from their surroundings.
It is easy to tell which type of proprioceptive processing that a child with autism struggles with:
- Over-responsive children react and sometimes overreact to everything in their environment. Children with autism who are overly responsive will try to evade the stimulus that is giving them stress or fear. They are hyper sensitive to most sensory input.
- Under-responsive children are those children with autism who don’t seem to react to anything. It is almost as though they are unaware of their surroundings. These are the children who appear more withdrawn or non-communicative.
- Seekers are always rummaging around for more sensory input. These are the busy bodies that roam around touching, tasting, smelling, spinning, or talking. These children with autism can’t fill their sensory tank full enough. It takes a creative parent to keep these kids satisfied.
Sensory activities can help with all three of these categories. For the over responsive child, there are activities that can be used to reduce stress or fear of a stimulus. For the under-responsive child, there are activities that can encourage more interaction with others and more interest in activities outside of their normal interests. For the seekers, there are calming strategies if you can find just the right activity for them to keep them engaged and sitting for longer periods of time.
In all of this, the common denominator is the interactive activity to engage the senses. Sensory learning is not about sitting at a table and reading and writing (although some children might find that engaging)- but sensory play is about getting a child’s attention and then involving them in an activity that keeps their focus while satisfying the connecting between the hands, the eyes, the ears, the nose, and even the mouth as it speaks to the brain. This is how most people learn best and how children with autism learn even better.
Circle Care Services knows how to use sensory play to teach your child. Whether it is social skills, pivotal skills, academic skills, or behavioral skills- our team of experts have the experience and the know how to create a customized treatment plan for your child. We also have a wonderful social skills group that your child can enjoy while engaging in sensory activities with others. Call Circle Care today to set up an evaluation.