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Sensory Activities for Kids with Autism

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Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) see the world differently.

Some kids with ASD might have heightened senses, where a kettle boiling may cause a meltdown; others with more muted senses are unmoved when a car loudly backfires in the street.

Yet, these extremes in sensory perception can be altered through playing.

Learning through play is one of the critical components of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy for children with autism.

In particular, sensory play. 

Sensory activities for kids with autism can retrain their brains to react differently to stimuli. This, in turn, can improve self-regulation and help them handle their reactions to sound, scent, touch, taste, and movement.

At Heartlinks, we regularly include sensory games throughout our ABA therapy. It has been and continues to be one of the most effective ways to treat autistic children with sensory sensitivities.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing is how the body’s nervous system manages incoming environmental stimulation using its seven sensory systems: 

Girl listening to music outside
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Visual (sight)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Auditory (sound)
  • Proprioceptive (joint and muscle system sensing body position)
  • Vestibular (movement and balance)

It is estimated that more than 70% of children with autism spectrum disorder have a sensory processing disorder. A child with a sensory processing disorder will be either hypo or hyper-reactive to certain stimuli. 

As an example, an autistic child may scream and cry when you close a door because the sound is too overwhelming for them. They are hyper-reactive to auditory stimuli, whereas a vestibular hypo-reactive child may continuously swing all recess in the school playground and not want to stop.

Why Sensory Games Are Important for Kids with Autism

Sensory activities for kids with autism not only benefit them but all children. Yet, sensory games can help children on the spectrum in specific ways, including the following.

  1. Communication

By repeating gestures and words in combination with sensory fulfillment, kids on the spectrum can learn more language. This is the foundation for communication. Once they understand what is being expressed or said to them, they can utilize those words in spoken or written language.

  1. Motor Skills

Children with autism often experience a delay in the development of their motor skills. By engaging in sensory activities designed for kids with autism, they can learn how to dig, grasp, scrape, scratch, and maneuver objects of various sizes.

  1. Social Skills

By participating in sensory activities with either friends or siblings, your autistic child can begin to develop and hone their social skills. Sensory play will help them learn to communicate, compromise, and settle disagreements. The appeal of sensory play is that every child can engage.

  1. Calming 

Whether it’s sand play or water play, most sensory activities offer a calming effect for children on the spectrum. Their brain will begin to form new nerve pathways with regular sensory sessions. This will create balance within their central nervous system, resulting in fewer meltdowns and your child’s ability to self-regulate more easily. 

Fun Sensory Activities for Children with Autism

There are hundreds of examples of sensory games for kids with autism. The variety includes many activities that can be created at home with supplies you already have, while others can be bought and built for use.

Sensory Walk

Gather several plastic tubs and place them on an open sidewalk, deck, or lawn. Fill each tub with a different textured item. Examples include filling one tub with cotton balls, another with shaving cream, and a final one with lentils. There is no rule about how many tubs you need or what to fill them. We recommend starting with only a few if your child is especially apprehensive about textures. 

Then encourage your child to step barefoot into each bin and discover what one feels like. This is known as a sensory walk. 

If your child is verbal, get them to explain their feelings about the items in the tub. If they’re non-verbal, encourage them to use the mode of communication they enjoy (i.e., hand gestures, sign language, facial expressions) to express their feelings.

Sensory Bottles

Sensory bottles can be calming. They also help kids on the spectrum transition from co-regulation to self-regulation. Sensory bottles force a child to focus on the item instead of the stimuli that overwhelms them.  

To make a sensory bottle, you only need a clear jar or bottle filled with liquid and a few objects that float or sink. You can also add confetti or glitter to the bottle. 

The concept is that the child will shake the bottle, generating several different sensations and stimulating areas in their brains. 

Sensory Path

A series of guided movements indicated by markings on the ground or walls is a sensory path. These guided movements or activities could include frog hops, wall pushes, or spins.

Kids playing sensory games

As children follow the path and execute the exercises, they develop their gross motor skills and expend energy. The variety of movements along the sensory way is designed to burn energy and help a child handle overstimulation.

Other examples of sensory activities for kids with autism include:

  • Playing sorting games
  • Hiding toys in jelly
  • Creating a sensory ocean
  • Making a pouring station
  • Scented playdough
  • Playing in a sandbox
  • Finger or foot painting

Learn More at Heartlinks

Often children with autism have difficulty regulating their responses to sensory information, including loud noises, different textures, or strong smells.

One of the most effective ways to teach autistic children to regulate their reactions is through sensory games as a part of their regular ABA therapy.

Yes, sensory activities for kids with autism provide tremendous benefits, but perhaps the greatest is fun. Play is a child’s way to learn, communicate, and understand their environment.

For more information on how sensory games can help your child, contact Heartlinks today. 

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