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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Simple Sensory Motor Activities that Help Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children and adults on the autism spectrum frequently seek deep pressure and movement sensory stimulation. We see this when they are running, jumping, twirling, rocking, swaying, crashing into things and burying themselves under  blankets and cushions.  These are the individuals who are "sensory seeking" and they are attempting to self-regulate or soothe themselves, decrease anxiety or agitation or in other words, make their brains function at a more comfortable state for optimal focus and learning.  Some therapists describe the brain as an engine that may be running too high or too low.  Sensory diets are designed to help make "engines" run- just right.

Parents with young children may see these types of sensory seeking behaviors, but it does not necessarily mean that their children have an autism spectrum disorder. Many children with a sensory processing disorder (SPD) have atypical responses to sensory stimuli (what they see, hear, taste, feel, smell,  feel and how they move), yet do not manifest the social/communication impairments associated with the autism diagnosis. In my book From Flapping to function; A Parent's Guide to Autism and Hand Skills, I describe in great detail the types of SPD, the impact on children on the autism spectrum and strategies that help promote attention, learning and hand skills.

In this post, I share a few strategies that help bring the person with a very active brain or "engine" to an optimal state for learning. These strategies may help decrease the anxiety that leads to agitation and the agitation that contributes to maladaptive  behaviors such as biting ones hand or having a meltdown.

Lets start by exploring a variety of seating options that allow movement  (such as ball chairs and seat cushions) and use of weighted lap pads, vests, shoulder pads, etc.  My client shown in the photo is sitting on a large canvass bag I found, stuffed with foam, fabric, squeaky dog toys, bubble wrap and other items. He likes to stand and sit in order to make the squeaky toys, squeak. He also likes the weighted collar.

Its not expensive to explore strategies. Try filling a large sock with plastic bags of sand. If you use them outside you can omit the plastic bags, but the socks will leak. In any case, these feel great around the shoulders, lap or just to hold in the hands.
Now let's get moving! The young lady in this photo is enjoying the tight squeeze of my old life jacket. You can also try commercial weighted or pressure vests or fill an old vest with pockets with little bags of sand. Young children may enjoy the tight swimming garments or shirts that are so small they squeeze the body. Many children love layers of clothing in order to get that tight feeling and some prefer no clothing at all! So of course, use lots of trial and error and your experience to design adaptations....

The woman wearing the red vest is pushing a heavy cart loaded with bottles filled with sand. She is walking down the hallway at her program removing one at a time to place on the floor along the walls. Moving up and down or high/low provides vestibular stimulation, as does pushing the cart across the room. This vestibular stimulation is not as powerful as swinging or spinning but it is safe in this environment and does not take any special skill on the part of the staff to implement these strategies throughout the day.

I took the socks filled with sand and sewed the ends together to make weighted rings. I placed a pile of the rings on a tall cart so that the client shown in the picture needs to  reaching high into it. The rings may be placed on the floor or across the room to provide other types of movement as the client retrieves them and adds to a ring stack.

Parents with children at home may try hiding these rings under cushions or other heavy objects so that they use lots of muscle power to find them. Perhaps you can set up a large cardboard box to throw heavy bags or the rings into. The child can gather rings from inside the house or yard and place them on their arms or around their waist  if they fit before bringing them over to toss into the box.

This will be even more fun if you place a big vibrating massager inside the box so that it shakes. After your child inserts the weighted bags, it might be a great time to take advantage of the calm and focus and show them how to form shapes, letters, numbers or words on the cardboard box or just scribble if your child is at that level.

In the following video you will see my high energy clients travelling across the room to take an object and then use it in a different part of the room. Here are a few ideas...
1) place rings on one side of the room, or hide under cushions or inside containers to open and bring them one at a time to stack on a tall ring stack on the other side of the room.
2) Place a container of golf balls on top of a vibrating cushion so that the child takes one ball at a time and brings it across the room to push into a small opening in a lid. I have taught clients to take the objects one at a time so that the activity lasts longer. Pushing the balls through a tight lid is very sensory in itself because it takes force to push them.
3) Set up a large number of heavy bean bags or socks filled with sand on one side of the room to bring to a large container on the other side. Try using a very large container with a small opening so that they need to push the bags inside. Then when the activity is finished your child might enjoy having the bags dropped on them while sprawled on the couch or floor.
4) Create an obstacle course with trampolines, boxes to step in and out of or bolsters to crawl over as they move the weighted objects.
5) Set up so that objects are moved back and forth from the floor to higher surfaces in order to provide that high/low vestibular stimulation.
6) Provide a shoulder bag or backpack to help gather the objects and bring back to the container for insertion. You can see in the video that that can be quite challenging in and of itself!
6) Try counting the weighted objects or attach pictures, letters numbers or words  on them to identify or read.  Sensory motor activities are a great time to teach academic concepts!

Source: Sensory-Motor Activities for Individuals with Autism by RecyclingOT

Remember: It does not require a lot of space or money to create a fun sensory environment! Learn more at

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