Sensory Strategies and Other Ideas for Kids with Autism

Sensory strategies are associated with a variety of diagnoses and conditions through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  These strategies are non-invasive accommodations that can be made in any context, to all daily activities in all environments. Sensory strategies are often referred to as “movement breaks,” or other similar titles, but provide the same suggestions and are truly sensory strategies at their core.

These strategies have been found to be very useful for children with Autism who also have sensory processing challenges:

  • Mother plays with childUtilize a visual schedule throughout the day (both at home and at school).  Visual schedules are often easier to understand for a child with autism, or any young child, as there is a pictorial representation of each activity or time of day.  Using a visual schedule more clearly outlines the expectations that you have for the child and gives him/her a sense of control over their day.  A visual schedule may also be used as a tool to develop a morning and bedtime routine and increase independence in self-care activities, such as brushing teeth and getting dressed.
  • Allowing the child to take a 2-3 minute movement break every 10-15 minutes.  This break should involve intense movement when possible, such as jumping jacks, pushups, jumping on a trampoline, etc.  When intense movement is not appropriate, breaks may involve the student walking to the drinking fountain, getting up to sharpen his/her pencil and/or walking to the bathroom.
      • If an assigned task involves intense academic work, such as testing, lengthy projects or problem-solving assignments the child should be given the opportunity to take a longer break (approximately 10 minutes) to allow time for more intense physical exercise.
  • Utilize a timer during activities and make sure it is visible to the child.  Timers can be either visual, meaning that there is an area of the clock that becomes shaded and as time elapses the shaded area becomes smaller and smaller however there is no noise associated with it, or auditory, in which there is a digital display and an alarm that sounds when the time has fully elapsed.  Using a timer is especially helpful during preferred activities, such as free-play, as it sets a clear limit for the child regarding how long they will have to participate in this designated activity.  This makes the environment and the activity more predictable and eliminates any element of surprise which is present during verbal warnings such as “2 more minutes,” and should make transitions happen more easily.
  • Along with a timer, providing transition warnings and using transition items will help a child with autism move from one activity to the next.  A transition warning can be used in conjunction with a timer to create more clear expectations surrounding transitioning from one activity to the next.  A transition warning involves setting the timer for how long the child will have until moving on to the next activity, as well as verbally or visually communicating that the transition is approaching.  For example, if a child has 5 minutes of free play prior to a structured task, when I set the timer for 5 minutes I would tell him/her “You have 5 minutes to play and then when the timer beeps it is time to go sit at the table.”  Then when there are 2 minutes remaining on the timer I would follow-up with “Look at the timer, you only have 2 more minutes until table time.”  If a child does not yet understand the concept of time, the visual timer would be the better choice for a timer as you can clearly see the shaded or colored area disappearing.
      • A transition item is a physical thing that the child is allowed to bring from one activity to the next.  If a child was playing with blocks and it was time to go to the table for a writing activity, a transition item could be allowing the child to bring a block with to the table.  Or substitute an item, such as allowing him/her to bring an action figure, small doll or ball with him/her from the block area to the table.  Transition items help stop “tantrums” or the feeling that something is being taken away form the child and make the transition smoother.
  • Provide a toy or item for the child to manipulate during solitary work.  These items are often referred to as “fidgets,” and provide the child with an outlet to release their restlessness.  Rather than continuously moving his/her body, the child can move his/her hands quietly in their lap or on their desk while manipulating the fidget.
These sensory strategies can be implemented in the classroom, at home and in most other settings where a child is expected to be able to sit and attend to a task (church, Sunday school, music lessons, camp, etc.).  Incorporating these strategies into particularly difficult parts of the day can also have an immense positive impact on the child; for example, incorporating physical exercise into transitional periods may lessen the stress that these times put on both the child and the adult.  These sensory strategies are not strict rules to abide by, but are general guidelines to be expanded upon or adapted to fit each child’s individual needs.

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Kelley Balmer

Kelley Balmer graduated from Midwestern University with a Master's in Occupational Therapy. Prior to graduate school she attended Purdue University and received her Bachelor's in Movement and Sport Sciences with a minor in Spanish Language and Literature. While attending Midwestern she participated in both observations and clinical rotations in a variety of pediatric settings, including a hospital, special education academy and outpatient clinic. Kelley's passion for pediatric occupational therapy continued to grow when she worked privately with a family who has two children with special needs while forming everlasting bonds with the entire family. Kelley also participated in a yearlong research project targeting the potential role of occupational therapy in the foster care system. Pediatric therapy is a passion for Kelley and she hopes to continue expanding her knowledge, education and role in the field.

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