Building a Sensory Toolkit for Children with Autism

Katie Fisher, an occupational therapist with Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center in Novi, offers insight and advice for parents.

From the crowds of people to the food-filled aisles to the dings of the checkout scanners, the hustle and bustle of a busy grocery store can be very stimulating for children on the autism spectrum. It is not uncommon for children with autism to experience sensory overstimulation, which can result in dysregulation – kicking, hitting, shutting down – and possibly other behaviors.

Sensory toolboxes, or toolkits, are one way to help children cope with overstimulation and prevent them from becoming dysregulated, says Katie Fisher, an occupational therapist (OT) at Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center in Novi.

“You can grab these little handy sensory toolboxes, you can bring them with you wherever you go. They then become something that can calm your child, reduce stress or reduce sensory triggers,” Fisher says.

While parents might be inclined to order a sensory toolkit online, Fisher says it is important to consult your child’s occupational therapist first. Each child’s needs are different, and some of the items in that toolkit you just purchased might not be effective in helping your child self-regulate – which, she says, is essentially the goal of these toolkits.

Sensory processing struggles

Sight, sound, touch and taste – children can be sensitive to different sensory stimuli in their environment. And while many children can be over-responsive to sensory stimuli, others can be under-responsive, and some can crave certain sensory input, Fisher notes. Under-responsive children can have low attention and may appear lazy or lethargic. If you think of a glass full of water, this child’s water level would be low, thus needing a lot of input to fill them up and alert their system.

On the flip side, for an over-responsive child, “Their glass is almost full to the top, and they only need a little bit of sensory stimuli to fill up and can quickly spill over. So they can become overstimulated to their environment very fast,” Fisher says.

Building a sensory toolkit

Consult your child’s OT first, as he or she is the ideal person to help you put together an effective sensory toolkit specific for your child, Fisher notes. Here, she provides some examples of sensory toolkits for children with autism.

Tactile box: “These items can be calming and help organize the body,” she says. “They are designed to help reduce stress and calm sensory triggers.”

Items include: kinetic sand, bags with small textured items, textured bean bags, a cup of water beads, play foam

Visual box: While lighted toys may work for some kids, they don’t work for all. (Be sure to check with your OT, as some flashing lights are not calming to a child.)

Items include: small pinwheel, liquid motion timers, spinning tops, lighted toys

Proprioceptive box: This relates to a child’s muscles and joints – and those who need pressure on their bodies. “The whole idea is something that gives resistance to joints,” she says.

Items include: Monkey Noodles fidget toys, rubber band ball, therapy putty, shaking/dancing ball, push and pull fidget toy, stress balls, weighted stuffed animals

Oral input box: These are good for focus and alertness, she says.

Items include: chewy tubes, gum, chewy necklaces, vibrating toothbrush, crunchy snacks (so they are getting that crunch within their teeth)

Calming box: If you have a child that needs calming when they are overstimulated by something visual or tactile, for example, this could be a great approach, Fisher notes.

Items include: mini Etch A Sketch, markers and paper, a book of mazes, squishy balls, a bubble tower, pin art

“Once you have a few of these in their little toolkit, you’re going to introduce them slowly,” she says. Introduce these items when your child is at home, calm and regulated.

When showing your child some of the items, say something like this, “If you’re feeling like your body has too much energy, you could use this box and get out the play foam and squeeze it in your hand,” she says.

Show them what to do and why they need to use it. But don’t push it either, she notes. It can take time for kids to figure out what regulates them.

“As much as we want it to work instantly, sometimes it may take time to introduce the boxes.”

In the end, it could end up being trial-and-error – and that’s OK. These can be modified any time.

For more information on Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center, visit blossombehavioral.org.

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