As I was treating a patient of mine with Autism last week, his Mom and I were talking “shop” and discussing the sensory items around her home that her son was currently using more than usual. During this conversation, she said these 7 beautiful words to me; “You know, Target sells sensory furniture now!” Target, already having my affection from selling a line of sensory friendly clothing, now sells crash pads, cocoon chairs, and rocking desk chairs. A “Sensory” state of mind has officially infiltrated mainstream stores and society. HOW AWESOME IS THAT! However, with great power comes great responsibility. Sensory furniture is only as good as those that know why, when and how to use it.
As an occupational therapist, I am clearly a big believer in the benefits of sensory input for self regulation. But what does this “self regulation” jargon mean, after all?
Self regulation is the ability to manage your own responses to your environment in order to maintain optimal arousal. Let’s break down both parts:
- For children, managing responses to their environment could mean getting through a stressful situation without having a tantrum, or refraining from getting too wound up or “wild” when excited.
- Arousal is the state of being alert and attentive. Maintaining optimal arousal refers to a child being in the “just right” state to be able to participate in an activity or complete a task.
When explaining the concepts of self regulation to others, I like to open people’s eyes to their own sensory habits first. For example, do you run or exercise after a stressful day? Are you a pen clicker, gum chewer or foot tapper? Are you the sour candy, salty, crunchy-snack seekers that were late night study eaters in college? Do you like the soothing smell of a lavender bubble bath at night before bed? Enjoy cranking the air down and sleeping with a heavy comforter?
When being in a “just right” state is challenging for children with sensory processing difficulties, occupational therapists can recommend certain sensory activities. These activities are no different in nature than your self regulation strategies as mentioned above. Your running helps you decompress after a long day; active, playground time may help your child reset after a long school day. Your pen clicking or foot tapping serves to promote attentiveness in a long meeting; your child’s fidget item may do the same for a long class. A crunchy or sour snack helps you stay alert when studying; this may help your child concentrate during homework time. A soothing lavender bath or heavy blanket helps you sleep; these routines may also help your child at bed time. Sensory needs are universal! As parents, it’s just a matter of discovering the activities that will help your child specifically.
When choosing sensory activities, parents should ask themselves if the activity affects their child’s arousal by being alerting (your child “wakes up”), or calming (your child “slows down”). Overall, what we want is the activity to be organizing for their sensory system. We want to find the activities that help your child be “just right” inside their bodies and better able to focus/pay attention. Every child is different! What may be helpfully alerting and organizing for one child can be over the top and too much for another. For example, we don’t want to provide trampoline jumping to an already wound-up child if we observe that after jumping, they are even more wound-up and unable to sit for homework- that would be counterproductive. If we observe that after jumping on the trampoline, a child can stay seated for homework longer- that’s what we’re looking for. Blanketly applying sensory activity without an arousal goal in mind and without observing the effects can be frustrating to both you and your child. Recognizing the difference in your child following various sensory activities will help you further understand what can assist them in regulating their bodies to that “just right” state.
Below are some examples of inexpensive sensory equipment as well as ways for your child to use them in order to promote that “just right” state of arousal. Be a close observer during and after these activities to see how they affect your child. Remember- the goal is organization and self regulation.
Alerting: to raise a child’s active attention
- Mini Trampoline: Provides alerting, proprioceptive input from the impact of the jump
- Therapy Ball: Provides alerting movement through the dynamic nature when sitting or bouncing
Calming: to lower a child’s activity level
- Tent/Fort: Provides a small, dark, quiet space for calming
- Weighted items: Blankets, lap pads, or wrist weights help with calming, deep pressure input
Alerting or Calming depending on use
- Lycra hammock swing
-To alert: Complete spinning, fast bouncing, and rotational swinging
-To calm: Complete slow, back-and-forth, linear swinging and movement
- Crash Pad
-To alert: run and crash into it safely
-To calm: lay under the weight of it
- Rocking chair
-To alert: Use as a seating option to provide movement and promote attentiveness when a child is completing a tabletop task
-To calm: Complete consistent back and forth movement
For more specific information about your child and sensory activities that may work for them, seek out an occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration.