Hands-On Fun!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Introduce sensory activities for children with autism and you’ll find other children will love them, too.

Socialising can be a daunting task for parents who have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But with careful planning, you can create a welcoming, exciting environment that will help these children engage in play at your playgroup.

Bring in topics that interest the child to add to their play experience and help hold their attention. Try doing the activity yourself first, giving them enough space and time to watch before they feel comfortable joining in.

Be flexible. If you’ve found an activity that everyone enjoys, stick with it. And don’t be discouraged if no one wants to join in. Just having kids watch you demonstrate and talk about what it looks like, smells or feels like will make the activity a positive and rewarding experience.

Children with ASD might need time to process that an activity will finish soon. Cleaning or packing it up together can help. Try to remember the importance of eye contact and saying exactly what you mean. For example, when complimenting a child, try not to just say “good job”, but “I think you did a good job painting your picture”.

Sensory play is highly creative, has no focus on making something specific and is focused on the process, not the product. It allows children to represent feelings or thoughts with or without the use of spoken words, and can be an enjoyable, soothing experience.

As this play is open-ended and has no rules, it means every child, regardless of age, abilities or needs, can participate. Children can use all their senses to explore, see, hear, taste, smell and, particularly, touch. All this contributes to cognitive, creative and physical development. It encourages fine motor, sensory processing and communication skills, hand-eye coordination, following directions, sharing and turn-taking.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Cover a table with a plastic tablecloth or bubble wrap and let children paint with their hands. Experiment by mixing different colours together.
  • Tape a piece of contact sticky side up to a table. Children can use feathers and bits and pieces to stick and unstick. Tape a long piece to the floor and have children walk over it, with or without shoes.
  • Try adding flavours and textures such as cocoa powder, cinnamon and food colouring to your playdough recipe. Add scents and textures such as vanilla, orange, lemon, peppermint, rose water essence, lavender oil, dried herbs (oregano, thyme), rice, lentils, sand, pebbles or rock salt.
  • To make playdough, mix together a cup of plain flour, half a cup of salt and two tablespoons of cream of tartar. Mix one tablespoon of cooking oil with a half to one teaspoon of food colouring with a cup of boiling water, and slowly add it to the dry ingredients until a dough forms. Knead until smooth and stretchy. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.
  • Fill balloons with playdough. Draw faces on the outside of the balloons with a permanent marker. These can be moulded into different shapes. You can also fill balloons with dried rice. If a hole appears in the balloon, throw it away.
  • For a calming activity, add a few drops of food colouring to a cup of dried rice and mix together in a container. You can make different colours and, once dried, mix them together. Store in a sealed container. For play, use different sized cups, scoops, measuring spoons, milk bottle lids for pouring and measuring or small plastic animals to hide and bury.
  • Cook some spaghetti and rinse with cool water. Add a handful, with several drops of food colouring, to a snaplock bag, seal and shake. You may like to make a few different colours. Leaving the cooked spaghetti in a sealed container overnight creates a sticky consistency. Once children have felt it ‘sticky’, add small amounts of water until it feels ‘slimy’. You may like to add more water and move the noodles around with your hands or feet.
  • To make slime, mix together two cups of Lux soap flakes and two litres of hot water and add food colouring, if desired. Leave to cool for one to two hours, or overnight, to thicken. Use on a flat surface such as a table or put in a shallow tray.
  • Mix together a 500g bag of cornflour with enough water until you reach a smooth yet runny consistency. When it starts to dry out, add a little more water. Add a couple of drops of food colouring if desired.
  • Ask children to help you fill containers or watering cans with water and pour it into a tray or trough. Experiment by adding a few drops of food colouring or make bubbles by adding a little dishwashing detergent. Use warm water for a soothing and calming experience. Bath or wash dolls or large plastic animals with sponges. Add ice cubes and watch them melt during play. Add water beads or leaves and use sieves to scoop them up.
  • Paint’ the fence or outside walls with water and brushes. Water the lawn, plants or trees.
  • Everyone loves bubbles. Watch them float by, try to pop them and take turns at blowing them.

Simple No-Cook Ideas

  • Make a fruit salad together. Adults can help to cut up the fruit and children can transfer it to the bowl and take turns mixing it together.
  • Cut bite-sized pieces of banana, strawberries, grapes, watermelon or rockmelon to thread onto natural pop sticks to make fruit kebabs.
  • Prepare crackers or sandwiches for snack time. Provide children slices of cheese, a butter knife and a plate and let them spread butter or spreads onto the crackers or bread and put cheese on top.
  • Remember to have a washbasin or sink close by for cleaning hands and be aware of the products you used to ensure they are safe, especially for children who are sensory seekers and may attempt to swallow. Supervision is required at all times. 

Words, Melanie Baker, Playgroup SA Support and Development Officer

This article was originally published in State of Play, Issue Two, 2015