Winter Sensory Activities for Your Child With Autism

Cold weather season is the time to maximize fun indoor sensory activities for your child with autism. Double the fun by focusing on social engagement, too. Here’s how.

When the cold Michigan winter really settles in, we struggle to summon the energy to layer up and head out into sub-zero temps. Even if you can get out for part of the day, you’ll need some indoor sensory activities up your sleeve to create balance and ward off restlessness for your child with autism.

“It can be really hard to seek out activities in the winter because you can’t always just go to the park to blow off some steam,” says Jamie McGillivary, BCBA, President and Founder of Healing Haven, a Madison Heights-based ABA therapy center for children and teens.

“Sensory play is something that all kids like to engage in, but it’s particularly important for kids with autism because their sensory systems are different and it’s easier for them to become under- or over-stimulated,” McGillivary says. When a child with autism has sensory needs that aren’t met, they may seek out inappropriate ways to meet those needs, she adds.

She recommends creating options for sensory play right at home. And, while you’re making your plan, consider how to incorporate social engagement for your child, too. “If you’re intentional and provide sensory activities that all children will enjoy, it can be two-for-the-price-of-one because the activities will promote social interactions as well,” she says.

With just a little planning, you can get ahead of cabin fever before it even sets in and help your child with autism meet their sensory and social needs all winter long.

Sensory activities and ideas

While it would be great if you could equip your home with a sensory room, not everyone has the space or resources.

“But you could have a sensory corner,” suggests Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven. “This could be a place where children can build a fort of blankets, snuggle up with some soft, fuzzy pillows and use a battery-operated lantern.”

Your sensory corner could have a diffuser with essential oils and a speaker for music that can be calming — or just the right beat for spontaneous dance parties.

Lidded containers filled with beans (“Beans are easier to clean up than rice,” McGillivary says) or Lego bricks provide sensory input when your child runs their fingers or hands through them, and, of course, Legos are fun for building, too.

Sensory bins can be great for fine motor skill development. A fun winter-themed sensory bin includes cotton balls, foam snowflakes and plastic tweezers for practice grabbing the items. Younger children may just want to use their fingers. This Healing Haven blog post has several suggestions for winter-themed sensory activities.

If you have the space, you can install a swing inside. Or, you can bring the wonder of the winter season inside, says McGillivary. If you are the type of parent who doesn’t enjoy playing outside in the winter, bring in a couple totes full of snow and let the kids build a snowman in the bathtub!

If you’re seeking ideas for your own sensory activities at home, talk with your child’s BCBA or occupational therapist. They’re sure to have some suggestions, says Dr. Thomas. “OTs are great at evaluating your child’s sensory needs, but you can also use your power of observation to see what they gravitate toward,” she says. “If they like to spin in circles, they may also love to spin in a chair.”

Make it social

When children play together, they practice valuable observation, communication, negotiation and cooperation skills, so it’s worth inviting cousins, friends and neighbor kids over to play, too.

When you’re combining sensory activities with social engagement, start by meeting your child where they are, McGillivary suggests. “Set your expectations for social engagement based on where your child is currently at. Sometimes, just being next to someone is enough,” she says.

If parallel play is currently appropriate for your child, try encouraging them to give a toy to a playmate or take a toy when offered.

Games are also a great way to include children of different ages and abilities to play together. “Indoor games that prompt imitation, turn-taking and cooperation are great. This might be something simple like Simon Says or complex like a board game,” McGillivary says.

Don’t be surprised if it’s challenging for children to focus for periods of time. Increased electronics use cuts into time that children would otherwise spend in cooperative play, and many kids struggle to live life in the “slow lane,” says Dr. Thomas.

She recommends observing your own child to set a family limit for video games and other electronic devices if necessary — and bear in mind that electronic games before bed are counterproductive to restful sleep.

“If you’re finding that your child doesn’t do well in social situations and is experiencing meltdowns, observe how much they are engaging with electronics,” Dr. Thomas says. “To have a well-balanced life, everyone needs fresh air, exercise and interactions with other humans. Electronics can be a part of life, but it can’t be the only part.”

Consider winter a good time to unplug — for both parents and children, McGillivary says.

“The world in general needs to sit and learn how to just be, and winter is a great time to do that,” she says. “While we all have barriers toward making this happen at times, we can start by mindfully introducing activities that promote this such as reading a good book, or putting together a puzzle. Children have a way of being our best teachers. If you have a child that can spend long stretches of time engaged in sensory activities such as sifting sand through their fingers, take the time to sit down, enjoy their company and join along. You may find some of your own stress fading away.”

Content sponsored by Healing Haven. Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy for children and teens at thehealinghaven.net.

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