If you’re new to the autism world, you may be wondering what all the hype is about sensory play. Sure, we all know it’s fun, and there are benefits for all kinds of children and adults alike. But what’s so important about sensory play for kids with autism?
How Autism Affects the Brain
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, so the brains of children on the spectrum are wired differently than those of neurotypicals from the beginning. The diagnostic criteria for ASD include restrictive, repetitive behaviors (such as sensory issues); and deficiencies in verbal communication and social interaction.
Improving sensory issues with sensory play for kids with autism
Kids on the spectrum perceive the world in another light, and therefore their senses are shifted in one direction or another from the baseline. Some autistic children have heightened senses, while others have dulled senses. Still others may have a mixture – their hearing is super sensitive, yet their sense of touch is not quite up to par. The way children receive sensory signals directly affects the way they feel and behave.
When the environment is sending too many sensory signals, children with autism may shut down or have a meltdown. If a certain food has an undesirable texture, the child will refuse to eat it, and may even gag. Their brain is telling them that the sensory signals they are receiving are not welcome. This can cause sensory overload.
Having a healthy balance of sensory signals, and receiving the proper type and amount of sensory input can make worlds of difference in a child with autism.
Communication and Social Interaction
Communication and social interaction go hand in hand, because it’s obviously difficult to engage in any level of social interaction without some communication skills. Kids on the autism spectrum struggle with both of these.
While some autistic children are completely non-verbal, others learn very eloquent speech and still fail to communicate effectively because of their differences. Both of these examples make social interaction awkward.
Whether a child learns to communicate through sign language, spoken language, body language, or using an AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication device), it completely changes their world. Once you can communicate with someone, there is now an opportunity for social interaction.
I may not be able to speak French, but I can use gestures and facial expressions to engage in a small level of social interaction with a Frenchman. In the same way, learning any form of communication gives a child on the autism spectrum a way to interact with others.
Oftentimes, overwhelming sensory issues can keep a child from learning to communicate, because their brain is so focused on the incoming sensory signals. So sensory integration difficulties can also go hand in hand with communication and social interaction.
So what does all of this have to do with sensory play for kids with autism?
Sensory play for kids with autism
While there are benefits of sensory play for people of all ages and abilities, there are some ways it helps kids with autism in particular.
Calming and preventing autistic meltdowns with sensory play
Sensory play can help children on the autism spectrum by calming and preventing meltdowns. With regular sensory sessions, the brain begins to form new nerve pathways. This can help create balance in their otherwise overwhelmed nervous system, which can help the child regulate more easily, preventing or at least decreasing the frequency of meltdowns.
Sensory play is calming and therapeutic. If your child is having a meltdown, offering a sensory toy or tool can redirect their brain and quickly calm them. Some children prefer to swing, while others may be calmed by moving their hands through a kinetic sand sensory bin. Either way, sensory way has a calming effect.
Communication development through sensory play
Communication skills can also be greatly improved through sensory play. Through repetitive spoken words and gestures, coupled with sensory fulfillment, children can learn receptive language, which is the cornerstone of communication. Once they understand what is being said or expressed to them, they are able to learn how to use those words in written, spoken, or expressive language.
Motor skills and sensory play
Many kids on the autism spectrum have delayed motor skills. Playing in sensory bins is a great way to improve fine motor skills, as they learn to grasp small objects, dig, scrape, transfer, and maneuver the sensory materials.
Memory improvement through sensory play
Some people learn better by seeing things, and others learn better by hearing things. Most people learn better when there is a combination of learning techniques used. If the teacher draws a picture on the chalkboard and explains it verbally, the concept sticks better than simply reading it in a book. Kids with sensory issues, including autism, retain new knowledge easier when sensory play is involved.
If I hand my son a set of high quality Melissa and Doug alphabet puzzles, he may be able to put the letters into the correct places by figuring out the shapes. Unfortunately, he’s not going to remember that the M says “mmm” for “moon.” But when he has to dig through a sensory bin to find the apples and place them on the letter A (or shells for the Hebrew letter Shin), he will remember the sound the letter makes because it involved his senses. Because of this, I find ways to incorporate sensory play into most of our learning activities!
The essential role of sensory play for kids with autism
As you can see, there are multiple benefits of engaging children with autism in sensory play. It’s calming, it improves their ability and desire to communicate, it boosts their motor skills, and helps them retain more as they learn. Although it seems like such a simple thing, sensory play for kids with autism truly is essential.