• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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How to Use Sensory Tools to Calm and Focus Autistic Children

Sensory tools can help focus and calm any child but more specifically a child with autism. Some of the sensory tools I have found success within my classroom are:

  • Pea Pod
  • Swings
  • Body Sock
  • Weighted/Compression Vests

Pea Pod

 

One of the easiest tools to introduce to a child without being too intrusive is the Pea Pod and any swings. Most kids usually like the look of a Pea Pod, and once they see someone use it, they jump right in. The Pea Pod can soothe a child with Autism two ways. One way is the rocking in the pea pod provides them with the vestibular input to re-center themselves and focus. The other goal with the Pea Pod is if they crave squeezes. I had a child with Autism get in the Pea Pod and more than he wanted to be rocked he liked it when I closed the Pea Pod sides over him and squeezed. That same boy who liked to be squeezed in the Pea Pod would also like to crash out of it. We would put the pea pod on a gym mat and sing “Ring Around the Rosie,” and when they all fall down, we push the Pea Pod over. This gave him the full body hard input which he also craved.

best autism sensory products pea pod

My five-year-old loves to sit in his and play iPad!

Swings

Similar to the Pea Pod swings are great tools for helping to calm a child with Autism. When I say “swing,” I am talking about any swings from the ones that you have at your local park to ones that are typically used in a school or therapy setting to give them some vestibular input. I find that swings are more for calming and less for focus, although not saying it doesn’t help. Similar to an infant who finds a car ride soothing and will fall asleep, a swing provides the same calming feelings in a child anywhere from 2+ years old. I mainly use two types of swings in my classroom – a platform swing and a nest swing. I use them both the same way – for sensory breaks and rewards. We had a child who loved the swing so much he would work for that during his Discrete Trial Training times. This improved his work and attention so much because he knew what he needed to do to earn that swing. Once on the swing, a timer was set, and when it went off, we would go back to Discrete Trials. Even more rewarding, once the child figured out that the faster he did his trials, the faster, he could get on a swing the quicker and more accurate he became. Great swings for home:  nest swing, platform swing, and therapy swing.

best platform swing autism

Brothers swing together and have fun knocking each other off.

Body Sock

If you have never heard of a body sock, it looks like this. This is ideal for the child who is active and who likes to move and squirm. The child climbs in and can close the headpiece or not. When in, encourage the child to stretch arms and legs and move their body (but not move out of one spot too much). This provides them with pressure and compression on the joints which for some children is calming. This is typically more common for the older ones who can figure it out with lots of independence. However, I have had great success with it in children as young as 3. This is not typically something I use as a reward but as something that is always available in the room to help them to self-regulate their needs. Once the children figure out what that type of input does for them, they will seek it out. A body sock is a great additional to your sensory product collection.

best autism sensory products kids body sock

Better than using me as a Mommy-sock!

Weighted Blankets and Wearables

Last, probably the most commonly known sensory tool is the weighted equipment or sometimes called weighted wearables like weighted vests and weighted blankets. These are best used for the kids who you see seeking deep pressure. This can look like hitting their head on walls or floors, hitting others with no visible reason. It can able be used for the kids who don’t seem to know where their body is in space. The recommended weight for any person, adult or child, is no over 5% of their body weight. There have been very conflicting studies on how long to have a child wear a weighted vest, for example. Some used to say no over 20 minutes. Now that is not what the studies say. Some studies say to let the child be the guide on how long to leave it on. I usually know someone wants to take it off because they tug at it or they put my hands on it, etc. I have a child now who only needs about half an hour of weighted time in the morning, and then they are good for the day. Not everyone will be like that as I had a child who preferred to wear it all day long. Some vests have the option to add compression. These would have Velcro along the sides to tighten it to their body and weight like a traditional vest.

weighted vest autism sensory product

Great to wear under clothing and a fairly easy sensory product to travel with.

Read Aspie Family’s picks for the Best Sensory Products for Autistic Children—these are things they use and love.

Nicole Bureau

Nicole Bureau is a Special Education Teacher and Day Care Director at the Adirondack Arc’s Children’s Corner Pre-School in Saranac Lake, NY. She has a bachelors and master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from SUNY Plattsburgh and works in a self-contained special needs classroom. Outside of the classroom, Nicole works for families with kids with Autism in their home. This has offered her a unique look at the life of a student with Autism not only in the classroom but also in their home environment. Nicole grew up in Lake George, NY and has enjoyed living in the mountains her whole life. Currently, Nicole has just started pursuing her School Building Leadership Master’s degree hoping to be the executive director of Children’s Corner. When she is not teaching Nicole enjoys traveling, camping, going to music concerts, hiking, and spending time with family.