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Managing Sensory Needs in Kids With Disabilities During the Pandemic

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Our children have been cooped up for far too long. We all know it. Yet, the world is not opened back up yet. My children have been bouncing off the walls. Our 4-year-old, Benji, who has autism, has struggled with increased aggression. At other times, he only wants to be by himself and watch cartoons. That really isn’t like him (well, at least not to that degree).

Sadly, it took me weeks to realize what was going on. I mean, I knew he was going through zillions of changes (we had also moved the week school closed. Such great timing, right?), he hadn’t seen his friends and other family members in ages, and he was petrified of the coronavirus. But we were working on helping him with all of those things, and things still weren’t getting any better. Then I realized he wasn’t getting any of the sensory stimulation he used to get.

No wonder his body couldn’t regulate itself. He already had significant sensory processing disorder. Add all this other stuff to it and forget it! His body just couldn’t do it. We are lucky that his BCBA (who managed his ABA or applied behavioral analysis therapy) is also an OT (occupational therapist). She was able to switch hats from being our BCBA to being his OT again and gave us tons of sensory strategies. And whenever we implement them (which is very often throughout the day), it is like magic! He is a completely different kid!

Below are tons of sensory strategies for every type of sensory need. A lot of these strategies are used to amp up the kids and fill their extra sensory needs. But sometimes, kids are on sensory overload and need to relax. I have included some of those too, but not quite as many. Just a heads up, some of the strategies overlap, but rather than just keep repeating the same item in different categories, I made the executive decision to place them in one category, even if it may not be the perfect fit.

Keep in mind, I am not an occupational therapist. However, I did want to provide useful information for our cooped-up kids. So please consult with your child’s doctor or OT if you have questions or concerns.

Olfactory and Oral Strategies (Smell, Taste, and Crunch)

What can they do if they like extra smells?

  • Smell the flowers.
  • Smell yummy spices.

What if they like to chew on things?

  • Chew crunchy foods (like carrots or pretzels or celery).
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Chewing on chew toys.
  • Eat frozen popsicles.

Visual Strategies (Seeing)

These strategies tend to be very relaxing.

Auditory Strategies (Hearing)

Some kids like to hear loud sounds. Some children are scared of loud noises. Some just like to make loud noises. Either way, here are some activities they can use.

  • Blow whistles (yikes, I know) or even having them whistle, if they are able.
  • Use a white noise machine.
  • Listen to music (music they like, amp up music, or calm down music).
  • Have them hum.

Proprioceptive Strategies (Knowing Where Your Body Is In Space/Deep Touch)

Many kids with additional sensory needs require heavy lifting or deep touch throughout the day to ground themselves. The cool thing about these types of strategies is that they can wake up the body or calm the body, depending on what the body needs at that moment. Additionally, they give you the best bang for your buck if you can only pick one sensory strategy to try.

  • Pull on stretchy bands (kind of like tug-of-war, but the child can do it him/herself).
  • Dig (in the mud, dirt, sand, play-doh, modeling clay, rice, beans, anything really).
  • Jump on or crash on a crash pad or bean bag chair. They can also use a couch cushion or mattress, but need to be heavily supervised just in case.
  • Jump on a trampoline (can also be vestibular).
  • Put on weighted vests (follow the instructions outlined by your child’s OT).
  • Have them do bear walks, crab walks, or wheelbarrow. Or any unusual type of walk that requires them to use their full body weight.
  • Bounce them on a ball (could sometimes also be vestibular).
  • Have them do heavy lifting (obviously, within their capabilities. This can be a small bag of sand, a heavy backpack, laundry, a heavy blanket, or anything they can lift).
  • Wrestle with them (safely).
  • Have them hammer. Could be hammering pretend nails, a drum, a wall, or the ground. Anything that is safe to hammer and won’t break. And ideally with a plastic toy hammer.
  • Wrap them in a blanket like a burrito.
  • Wall push-ups.
  • Climb up the stairs.
  • Crawl through a tunnel.
  • Have them bang on drums (or find things they can pretend are drums in the house. That might be quieter).
  • Bounce them on your lap.
  • Have them run around the house or outside.
  • Hide them (safely) in cardboard boxes.
  • Have them push up against the wall.
  • Vacuum.
  • Run in place.
  • Pull weeds.
  • Swaddle them.
  • Roll them out (use a beach ball and roll it over the back of their body with firm, but not hard, pressure).
  • Sandwich them in between two pillows or cushions and lean on them to add extra pressure.
  • Bear hugs.
  • Have them hide under a couch cushion, crash pad, or bean bag chair.
  • Give them massages.
  • Weighted blanket or lap pad (follow the instructions outlined by your child’s OT).
  • Have them mix dough.
  • Play with vibrating children’s toys or toothbrushes.
  • Carry around a heavy backpack.
  • Wear a compression shirt (follow the instructions outlined by your child’s OT).

Vestibular Strategies (Movement and Balance)

Some children get nauseous with extra movement. But other children absolutely crave it. My son asks me to dangle him and swing him around all the time. It sounds out there, but it really helps him. He honestly needs that extra motion in those moments. Here are some strategies for those kids who really need that extra movement.

  • Play on swings. There are zillions of kinds out there, and they each serve a slightly different purpose. Some spin and some don’t. Each child has different needs and desires.
  • Dangle your child upside-down or swing them upside-down.
  • Hug them close and spin around with them in your arms.
  • Spin them in an office chair (or any chair that spins).
  • Slide down slides.
  • Have them sit on wiggle cushions.
  • Stomp around on the floor.
  • Dance (even better, have them dance as silly as they can).
  • Use a sit and spin.
  • Help them do somersaults.
  • Lay them on the floor and roll them like a log.
  • Rock them in your arms or on a rocking chair.

Tactile Strategies (Touch)

Some children (and adults, honestly) have an extra touch need. They need to feel new and different textures. We often hear about stress balls or squishy balls, but what else can we offer these children?

  • Play in a ball pit (or a tent or a tub or a crib. With any type of balls or even balloons).
  • Play in a ball pit with stuffed animals or pillows instead of balls.
  • Dig in or play with sand (or kinetic sand, play doh, or modeling clay).
  • Cover your child in soft warm blankets.
  • Alternatively, cover them in warm towels.
  • Cover them or let them rest in a pile of pillows.
  • Have them rub lotion on their arms, hands, legs or feet.
  • Do an outside texture walk. Have them look for and touch new textures of items found outside (not poison ivy or poison oak, please).
  • Have them mix cookie dough or bread dough with their bare hands.
  • Play with balloons.
  • Play with water balloons (ideally outside…).
  • Play with water beads (I like to use a mix of the big ones and the small ones).
  • Play with shaving cream (in a bin, at the sink, or in the tub).
  • Place them in a bubble bath.
  • Give them a back scratch.
  • Provide them with hand fidgets.
  • Let them play with slime.
  • Sensory bins (you can fill any container with objects such as sand, uncooked beans, cooked but cool noodles, uncooked rice, feathers, pompoms, dirt, flour, sugar or oatmeal).
  • Brush their body with a body brush.
  • Let them make and use a quiet area with pillows, blankets, and anything else that makes your child feel safe.

A couple of words of wisdom. Don’t overdo it. Sometimes, a little goes a long way. Also, listen to your child. Do more if they ask for more. Stop if they ask you to stop. Often, they will indicate to you in some way what they need. Our job is to stop and listen.

I hope this post provides you will an easy go-to guide to help your child meet their extra sensory needs through this tough time. We will all make it through this! Each and every one of you is doing a great job!

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our autism community:

This story originally appeared on Midst of Chaos.

Getty image by Train_Arrival.

Originally published: June 7, 2020
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