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It’s every autism parent’s nightmare. The earth-shattering tantrum at the store, or the social get-togethers that leave people whispering and gawking as your child lies like a dead weight, screaming or curled up in a ball and pounding their head. The very idea is overwhelming. It is one of the reasons parents of children with autism often isolate themselves and avoid social interactions that involve their child.
Trying to soothe your child and then trying to offer an explanation to everyone else, who are far too full of opinions, considering their lack of knowledge. And when the child is high functioning, it can even be more exhausting having to defend your child’s behavior, explaining that they are not a poorly behaved, spoiled brat – they have just experienced a sensory meltdown.
What is a sensory meltdown?
A sensory meltdown is not a tantrum. A tantrum has a purpose and is typical in young children – it’s a means to an end, to achieve an outcome. For example, it may be to avoid turning off the TV or to get the candy bar at the grocery store – and a tantrum is the only way a small child knows how to express a need.
On the other hand, a meltdown is usually a result of a sensory overload. Too much light, sound, touch, and activity elicit a fight or flight response beyond the child’s control.
There are other causes of sensory meltdowns, such as being in an overwhelming situation, changes to routine, being frustrated by being unable to communicate effectively, and even a lack of sensory stimulation. Contrary to popular belief, many children with autism are sensory-seeking (hyposensitive). They crave touch, physical pressure, and need to experience their environment through their senses.
Sensory Processing and Autism
Autism is a neurological condition and impacts how your child experiences their environment. Studies show that at least 83% of children and adults on the spectrum struggle with sensory processing issues – also known as sensory integration disorder. It profoundly affects how they cope with everyday activities like going to school, visiting shopping malls, and participating in social activities. Therefore, sensory regulation strategies are essential for making life easier for children on the spectrum.
What is Sensory Regulation?
Sensory regulation is what children with ASD need to help them decrease (or increase) their sensory arousal so that it matches their environment. Each day brings about situations that increase arousal and overwhelm their senses. Whether it is a clothing label that is distracting them by scratching their skin, too much noise or visual stimulation making them feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic, or the texture of particular food seeming too much to bear.
The ability to self-soothe is something that we develop as we grow, but it is not as simple for those on the autistic spectrum. They need to be taught coping strategies (self-regulation) or be offered tools to support them.
What Sensory Interventions Can Help a Child Cope?
You know your child. You know what makes them tick and what situations will be difficult for them. But sometimes, life is unpredictable, and it is a good idea to have some tricks up your sleeve to make things easier for your child. Very often, a child knows when they are in over their heads. This is especially true of slightly older, high-functioning children. So let your child know there are sensory tools and options for them when it all gets too much.
- Let them find a quiet space to limit sensory input and calm down if the situation allows.
- Keep some earplugs or headphones close by to block out excessive noise.
- Have a stash of sensory toys or fidgets that can be a soothing distraction.
While these strategies will help in the short term, sensory intervention therapy will give long-term relief and coping strategies. Sensory processing disorder treatment is play-based and involves equipment like trampolines and swings. It also uses deep pressure in the form of brushing, wrapping, weighted vests and blankets, and massage. It might sound counterproductive, but it is believed that exposing the child to this in a controlled, safe environment increases their threshold for stimulation.
Sensory Toys and Fidgets That Improve Sensory Interaction
Whether a child is hypersensitive to stimuli or experiences hyposensitivity, several tools are available to help them cope with their sensory issues.
There are toys and tools available to help your child, regardless of the type of sensory integration disorders they are dealing with. Plus, many of these make a great gift for a child with autism!
Five Sensory Fidgets to Help with Sensory Issues
1. Play Dough
Playdough is a simple, inexpensive tool that is an excellent method for children on the spectrum who experience sensory issues. It can be made at home, and depending on your child’s tolerance and need for sensory stimulation, you can even add some aromatherapy oils.
The act of kneading, flattening, manipulating, and rolling the dough is an excellent outlet for stress and can reduce anxiety – which is often the root cause of meltdowns.
Play dough is also a great tool to help develop fine motor skills, dexterity, and hand strength. When the child uses tools to cut, shape, and mold the dough, it also assists in bilateral coordination – the ability to use both hands simultaneously for a specific task.
2. Sensory Chewable Necklace
Children with autism often have an oral fixation that helps them regulate their stress levels. In other words, they constantly need to suck or chew – and moms and dads are all too familiar with the ruined t-shirts and damaged cuffs.
Chewable necklaces can satisfy their urge and spare their clothing at the same time. A well-designed chewable necklace is made of food-grade silicone, so it is safe and tough to chew through.
3. The Fidget Cube
The fidget cube was recently all the rage with neurotypical and neurodivergent kids alike. And while teachers were pulling their hair out with the constant clicking sounds, they recognized their place in a special needs context.
The little 1-inch x 1-inch cube has a combination of buttons and switches that offer a variety of satisfying motions. Some click audibly, and some are silent. Some click over like gears, and some flip like a switch. Think about the satisfaction you feel after a good bubble wrap popping session – the fidget cube offers similar relief.
4. Koosh Ball (Spaghetti String Ball)
A spaghetti string ball is soft and made up of hundreds of little silicone strings. It offers incredible, soothing tactile relief, and the stretchy strings are great for fidgeting. It is also quiet, so great for kids who are auditory sensitive or need to use it somewhere where noise can be a problem.
It seems so basic, but the simple act of playing with a Koosh ball stimulates the brain, creating new neural pathways, which build up resistance and improve the neural processing system.
5. Gel Stress Ball
A well-made gel stress ball offers the same benefits as playdough but is a perfect alternative for those children who struggle with the sensation of substance on their hands. The inner membrane is super tough, so there won’t be any awkward explosions. Squeezing is a great, subtle energy outlet that improves dexterity at the same time.
Get The Support You Need
If you need advice about sensory regulation in children with autism, Circle Care Services in New Jersey and Massachusetts is here to help. Our specialists are equipped to help your child and your family with communication, social skills, behavior concerns, and parent training.
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