Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) run the gamut from high functioning to low functioning and everything in between.
But one common trait tends to apply to many of them, regardless: ASD is often associated with sensory processing deficits.
Children can show struggles with sensory processing as early as six months, and these challenges can increase or decrease with age.
We’ll be the first to say that it can be hard to understand and relate to a child who has severe sensory processing challenges, and there are great options for therapies that can help children cope with the world around them.
There are also plenty of ways you can use sensory games for children with autism. Some of our favorite approaches are described below!
Benefits of Sensory Games for Children With Autism
Children with autism are children first and foremost. They may have wonderfully rich imaginations, a standard (and sometimes additional) set of needs, and many of them can learn through play.
One of the key themes you’ll find in all Bloom courses and resources is this:
Your child is unique.
Because of this, you should approach play with your child on an individual level.
Every child gravitates towards certain types of toys and types of play. As any parent of a child with autism knows, these particularities can be very intense!
Meeting your child on their level, and engaging with what they’re interested in, is absolutely essential to making a meaningful connection.
What are Sensory Toys and Games?
Sensory toys and games are specially designed to stimulate one or more of the senses.
Children on the spectrum enjoy these as they provide the sensory input that they need.
As a parent, you may have heard about sensory toys and games in the toddler or preschool years. “Sensory play” has become something of a buzzword in early education, and it’s a great way to facilitate tactile exploration of the world.
If your child is in occupational therapy, your therapist has probably used some of the toys we’ll talk about here.
Sensory toys and games are relevant for kids of all ages, especially those who struggle with sensory issues.
Here are some examples:
Textured items — Think about contrasts: bumpy versus smooth; scratchy versus soft. Textured items can include sensory tubes, squishy balls, sandpaper, bubble wrap, slime, spiky balls, and more.
Sensory lighting — Light and shadow, mood lighting, colorful lights, lava lamps, LED color strips, twinkle lights, and more can be used in sensory play.
Fidget items — These are easier than ever to get, and popular options include poppers and spinners. Repetitious, constant movement can satisfy a child’s sensory needs.
Scratch and sniff or scented items — Scented playdough, scented markers, even the scent of nature-based crafts that use leaves and flowers can soothe a child whose sensory system is out of balance.
Many of our examples aren’t things you have to run out and buy. You can create sensory items from things you already have in your home, such as items used to wash dishes, in the shower, and to paint with. This is also a good way to model for your child how to seek out appropriate sensory experiences, and make it clear that these things are accessible, and it is not hard to find them.
Let’s go through some examples of how your child, who may experience ASD symptoms or be diagnosed with autism, can play sensory games to feel good.
Visual Stimulation Sensory Play
ASD is often typified by an intense need for visual stimulation. This is why children with autism may spin in circles or spin their toys around and around. Repetitive movement has a calming effect, helping them regulate their sensory system.
It’s important to pay attention to how your child responds to lights and various types of visual stimuli.
Often, a perfectly balanced environment will leave them feeling at rest, whereas one where a light, color, texture, or sound is “off” to them will promote anxiety.
Visual sensory play can include things like this:
Decorating or doing crafts with glittery papers or materials.
Sticking colorful alphabet letters to a felt board.
Playing with a light projector or different colored lights.
Color painting in high contrast paper colors and paint colors.
Using flashlights to do a scavenger hunt.
Creating a kaleidoscope, paper windmill, fan, flag, or wind sock.
Think about what sights are highly stimulating and interesting, then follow your child’s lead on what makes them feel happy and at ease.
Sensory Games and the Vestibular System
Sensory games that provide vestibular input are a powerful way to help your child feel more focused and alert. One of our favorite ways to play with this is to use a balancing board.
The amount of focus a child has to exercise to stay upright can be helpful. There are plenty of fun games you can play once your child is confident and balanced. If the balance board is too challenging for your child at their age or level of gross motor development, you can use a BOSU ball, or even just a folded towel on the floor to give them some “early stage” attempts at balance.
Another whole-body option is compression vests, which provide deep proprioceptive input, and calm the body. Try using them to help your child increase their body awareness. With improvements in body awareness, your child will have a better understanding of where their body is in space, and how one part of their body moves in connection to another part.
You may discover that your child’s gross motor movements, like jumping or kicking a ball, will improve with heightened body awareness.
Play Builds Connections
Regardless of where your child may “fall on the spectrum,” so to speak, one of the challenges parents with autism face is building connections. If your child is nonverbal or not very communicative, play is a beautiful way to bridge the gap between traditional verbal communication and relationship building.
There are so many wonderful ways to build strength into your connection with your child, and we want you to clearly see how many options you have. As you dive into this further, consider us your trusted guide.
At Bloom, our entire aim is to smooth the path for parents and children to enjoy each other again. To reduce the conflict, to reduce the chaos, and to show you a way to celebrate life together every day.
If you are a parent of a child with autism, we know that you live day in and day out wanting nothing more than for your child to feel calm, to feel peaceful, and to feel at home.We hope these ideas help, and we hope you will join our community: learn about Bloom membership here.