Sensory activities for autism help Big A (my autistic four-year-old son) make sense of his world.
That sounds like a grand statement, especially since I’m talking about finger painting. But seriously. Put down the workbooks and grab some sticks from the back yard.
While sensory activities are helpful to all toddlers and preschoolers, they’re particularly beneficial for autistic children.
What Are Sensory Activities?
Sensory activities are opportunities to explore different textures and senses through play.
They can be exploring touch with clay, sound with crunchy paper, sight with bright colors, smell with scented stickers, or taste with edible slime. (Full disclosure, we don’t do much with taste, as I don’t want to encourage Big A to put even more things in his mouth.)
The beauty of sensory activities is their versatility. Sensory activities can be researched and planned, or spur-of-the-moment with whatever’s around the house. Sensory activities can explore one texture and sense, or a variety.
How Many Senses?
We all know touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. But there are two overlooked senses: balance and body awareness, or vestibular and proprioception, if you wanna get fancy.
During my labor with Big A, I sustained a birth injury that severely affected my senses of balance and body awareness, so I can personally vouch for their importance.
With sensory activities, play is used to flex these underrated developmental areas.
Why Are Sensory Activities Important?
Sensory activities provide a safe place to explore textures. And exploring textures literally reshapes the brain.
Yep. When those little hands plunge into slime a complex neural dance begins. The hands are sending signals to the eyes that are sending signals to the brain and the whole nervous system is stimulated. Just like regular dancing: with more practice, the more sure, quicker, and coordinated the steps.
Through the repetition of sensory activities, young brains get faster at processing signals, which leads to processing more complex information faster.
Engaging the senses greatly supports learning, processing, and retaining information. Has a scent ever triggered memories for you? Or have you ever read a tip that encouraged incorporating the senses for better memorization? That’s because we all learn best and retain the most information with engaged senses.
Sensory activities deliver more benefits, like:
- Supports language development
- Increases fine and gross motor skills
- Boosts cognitive growth
- Optimizes problem solving skills
- Improves coordination
- Calming in times of agitation
- Helps children learn sensory attributes
Sensory Activities And Autism
Big A often has trouble processing in a busy environment (hence the grocery store shrieking) or tolerating different food or clothing textures. Sensory activities are a great way to work with triggers in a safe environment. After all, it’s hard to learn in a stressful environment, isn’t it?
Big A doesn’t like to eat pasta because of its wet texture. The wet pasta stresses him out in a way I don’t understand. And it isn’t fair to demand compliance from him in such a legitimately stressful environment. Therefore, I’ll stage a lower stake and more fun sensory activity: water play.
Now Big A has an opportunity to build trust with wet textures in a fun environment. Water play builds neural pathways in Big A’s brain that reinforces the idea that water is safe and enjoyable. Over time, he doesn’t react negatively when pasta is presented and isn’t afraid to try it (or at least touch it).
That’s just one small example and area. I’ve found that sensory activities help Big A play in busy environments, dress in the morning and evening, and increases his overall calm.
Sensory Activities For Autism
These sensory activities engage all seven senses in a variety of ways.
- Water play: helping with dishes, washing toy cars in tubs, pouring and measuring liquids, playing in the bathtub
- Play-Doh (homemade or otherwise): bonus points for different scents and colors
- Standing on one foot
- Music fun: have a dance party, make simple homemade instruments, do Jack Hartmann’s “Dance and Freeze” video
- Weight bearing activities: ask toddler to carry something heavier (like a one pound medicine ball) from Point A to B (one end of room to special bin)
- Shaving cream painting: use food coloring to add visual fun
- Toddler yoga
- Hike outside to collect different textures (leaves, sticks, moss, stones, etc.) for sensory bins
- Make sensory bins
- Bean bag toss
- Sensory walk: fill bins with soft materials (shaving cream, scarves, feathers, dry leaves, cotton balls) and have kids step in the bin, guess and compare the textures
- Blow bubbles
- Tight Rope Walk: using a long piece of string or yarn, have kiddo “walk” the “tightrope” (of course the floor is lava)
- Finger painting
- Sorting activities: sorting similar objects and toys by color or size or type, etc.
- Follow The Leader
- Make an obstacle course: have littles go over, around, under, and through objects
These sensory activities help Big A so much, I hope they’re useful to you, too. What sensory activities do you do? Any I should add? Let me know in the comments.