According to many experts in sensory integration, all children with an educational or medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have issues, in one way or another, related to the way their sensory systems process information from the environment. Sensory systems include touch, movement, smell, taste, sight, hearing, and balance.
These experts also believe that 10–15 percent of all children (not just children with ASD) have difficulties with sensory processing. These difficulties create challenges when performing countless everyday tasks, most often in a school setting. Parents and teachers may be telling the children to sit still, focus, and pay attention, but their bodies are telling them to move.
Because each child has a unique set of sensory needs, how can we help each one stay regulated and focused during the school day?
For the child who needs to move:
• Allow activities that provide physical input, including climbing, swinging, jumping and safely
“crashing.” And allow frequent movement breaks—not as a reward but as an addition to the
child’s daily schedule.
• Assign the child tasks within the classroom that involve movement and carrying objects with
weight to them.
• Have the child sit on an exercise ball or inflatable cushion instead of a chair when doing
• Give the child an object to fidget with, such as a fabric tab sewn into a pocket, a piece of soft
cloth attached to the underside of a desk, a hair band, a band of stretchy material placed
around chair legs so the child can push his or her shins and ankles against it, or a Koosh ball
(a toy made of rubber strings attached to a soft rubber core).
For the child who needs oral input:
• Offer the child an object to chew on, such as a Chewy Tube, Pencil Topper, ChewEase,
or Chewable Jewelry.
• Provide the child with crunchy or chewy snacks.
• Allow the child to chew gum.
• Allow the child to suck thick liquids through a straw, such as a smoothie or a milk shake.
For the child who craves touch or deep pressure:
• Offer squeezes or skin brushing, or teach the child how to give him- or herself this type
• Provide the child with a weighted vest or blanket.
If the child with ASD either seeks out or avoids any of these types of sensory input, consider getting guidance from an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration-based OT.
Sun contributor Michelle Desmond Richards, MSW, is a floortime treatment specialist with All the Difference, a Wilmington, Delaware, nonprofit concerned with the impact of sensory integrative processing on people’s lives.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the July–September 2014 issue of the Autism DelawareSM quarterly newsletter, The Sun.