Sensory Activities & Autism: Benefits & 10 DIY Activities to Try
People with autism often experience either hypersensitivity — an over-responsiveness — or hyposensitivity — an under-responsiveness — to stimuli. Many have a combination of the two and sensory activities can help to balance the senses.
Common sensitivities for people with autism can include not only those involving the common five senses but also those involving movement, body position, and awareness of body cues.
Sensory activities can help to better process sensory information and provide positive outlets for stimulating the senses. There are a variety of sensory activities that can involve different senses that can be done at home, often with household objects to benefit autistic children.
What Are Sensory Activities?
A sensory activity is anything that engages, stimulates, and activates one or more of the senses including the following:
- Vestibular — balance
- Proprioception — body movement and position
- Interception — body sensations and internal cues
Sensory activities help children learn about the world around them in new, interesting, and exciting ways. These activities can involve problem-solving, exploration, and creativity.
Why Are Sensory Activities Beneficial for Children With Autism?
Children with autism can often have difficulties processing their senses, and external stimuli and sensory activities can not only aid with sensory processing but also help to increase participation and interest in the world around them. Sensory activities can guide children in learning to balance their senses and enhance cognitive strategies, helping to create neural pathways and improving sensory processing systems.
Sensory activities can provide the following benefits:
- Improved coordination
- Enhanced fine motor and gross motor skills
- Brain stimulation
- Calming down an agitated child
Sensory activities work best when they cater to the child directly and play to their specific strengths and what they are interested in. Sensory activities can also be tailored to a child’s age and developmental level.
10 Sensory Activities You Can Try and How to Do Them
Here are 10 activities you can try at home with your child and tips for doing them:
- Homemade musical instruments
There are several different types of musical instruments that you can make with household objects, and creating them can be just as much fun as playing with them. Some examples include:
- Shakers — dried rice or beans added to plastic bottles with secure lids.
- Rattles — buttons or beans threaded onto string.
- Drums — plastic tubs or pots and pans beaten with wooden spoons.
- Chimes — bottle tops or shells added to string and strung up.
These instruments can stimulate the sense of sound and also help support fine motor skills when working with small items to build the instruments. Gross motor skills are involved in vigorously playing with the finished products.
- Footprint painting
Roll out a large roll of paper. Use flat trays of paint and allow the child to walk in the paint and then onto the paper. You can make this as structured or free as you and your child would like. For example, you can make a starting “scene” to have the child add to with their footprints or just allow them to create as they wish. (Be sure to have paper towels and water on hand to clean up afterward.)
This type of sensory activity works with textures and the sense of touch as well as body movement and balance. Gross motor skills are also enhanced through this type of play.
- Laundry basket push game
For this activity, use a large laundry basket and fill it with balls, toys, or household items and have your child push the basket around the room from one side to the other. This activity can be varied with different types of items and weights in the basket.
Using gross motor skills and motor functions as well as stimulating the muscles, this game can be a great alternative to outdoor play when being outside is not a viable option. This can be a type of “heavy work” that can help a child with autism to feel more centered and aware of their body.
- Pool noodle balance beam
This is an easy and effective sensory activity with little setup involved. All you need is a safe space and a dollar store pool noodle. Clear an area and place a pool noodle on the floor. Have the child practice using it as a balance beam and walking across it.
Helping to stimulate the sense of balance and requiring some concentration, this sensory activity can help provide a calming and redirecting effect.
You can buy a ready-made crashpad for $100+ or you can do it yourself for much less, using things you likely already have around the house. Take a large duvet cover that zips and fill it with blankets, towels, and/or stuffed animals. Clear an area and lay the crashpad down, offering a space for your child to run and jump, roll around, and “crash” into safely.
Crashpads can provide proprioceptive input as well as vestibular and tactile input and are a popular and favorite sensory activity for children with autism. It is a great way for sensory-seeking children to safely engage these senses in a designated safety zone.
- Car wash
You can set this up outside or inside if you have a space that can get wet by providing bowls or tubs of water, soap, sponges, brushes, washcloths, towels, and plastic vehicles. Encourage the child to wash the vehicles — scrubbing them clean, rinsing them, drying them off, and repeating.
Stimulating fine motor skills, the sense of touch with water play, and the washing motion can help to provide calm and balance to a child with autism.
- Scented playdough
Playdough is a fun sensory activity, and you can make it yourself at home using the following ingredients:
- 1 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
- 1/3 cup of salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Cook and stir your playdough on medium-high until it starts to solidify. Stir it up until it creates the playdough texture. Allow it to cool to a safe temperature.
You can then add food coloring for color and different scented spices such as cinnamon, vanilla essence, ginger, lemon juice, or almond essence into divided small batches and have the child guess or merely enjoy the different smells.
Playdough provides a host of sensory inputs including touch, texture, smell, and fine motor skills. You can also include small toys or tools to manipulate the playdough. Homemade playdough is also safe if a small amount is tasted as well.
- Sand table or tray
You can either buy or build a sand table or use a tray or large flat tub. Fill the receptacle with play sand and a variety of toys and tools. Sand play should be mostly done outside and covered when not in use. This is a simple activity that can provide hours of fun.
Sand play can stimulate the sense of touch and encourage fine motor skills when using shovels, sieves, rakes, and buckets.
- Shaving cream painting
You can do this in many different locations, including outside on your window or sliding glass door, in the bathtub, or in a tray inside if you are willing to manage a little mess. All you need is a surface and a can of shaving cream. Either you spray or let your child help spray a mound of shaving cream onto the surface and then practice writing letters, drawing, or just experiencing the feel of the shaving cream in the hands and swirling with the fingers. After playtime, you can have your child help you clean it up with a towel.
This type of play stimulates the tactile senses as well as helps to improve fine motor skills and writing.
- Pouring station
Also only requiring household items, you can do this either inside or outside depending on your space and tolerance for water splashing around. Use a shallow bin or tub and as many different-sized containers as you can find in your kitchen. Measuring cups, pitchers, bowls, plastic drinking cups, funnels, ice cube trays, plastic turkey basters, and eye droppers can all be fun tools for this activity. Fill some of the containers with water and encourage the child to pour them into other containers or use some of the different tools to move the water. You can even add some food coloring to some of the containers for extra appeal.
Water play in a pouring station can help with fine motor skills as well as encourage concentration and increase the attention span using hand-eye coordination and balance skills. Pouring is also a real-life skill that can be translated from a game into something useful.
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Impact of a Sensory Activity Schedule Intervention on Cognitive Strategy Use in Autistic Students: A School-Based Pilot Study. (January 2021). British Journal of Occupational Therapy.
Activity Participation and Sensory Processing Patterns of Preschool-Age Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2020). The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.