Sensory Friendly Activities for Children with Autism 

Do you wonder about sensory activities for autism?  Moreover, would you like to know what they are? Or what activities do children or adults with autism enjoy? 

Sensory activities pay extra attention to the senses. That is due to the overlap between sensory overload and autism.  In addition, for children with autism, special sensory activities are often sensory-friendly.  The “friendly” aspect makes these activities easier for autistic children. They are easier to attend. In addition, they are easier to participate in. Therefore, this makes these activities enjoyable both for the child and their families. 

Furthermore, parents search for sensory-friendly activities for their children with autism. 

Sensory-friendly describes the way the sensory experience is adapted.  Friendly experiences can happen at a location. Alternatively, they can happen at an event.  In particular, the sensory experience is purposefully changed.  For example, a sensory-friendly activity reduces noise levels. Moreover, background music is turned down or off. In addition, bright lights are also turned down or off. Finally, these adjustments make the environment comfortable for people with sensory issues or sensory sensitivity.   

Sensory-friendly activities

Three examples of sensory activities for autism are:

  • sensory-friendly movies,
  • relaxed performances, and,
  • autism hour for shopping.

Movies

These are special movie events where the house lights in the theatre are on.  On the other hand, the soundtrack volume in the movie is turned down. “Lights up, sound down” is the key feature.  Furthermore, you can expect other accessibility changes too. 

Three kids watching a movie in a sensory-friendly cinema.

Relaxed performances

Relaxed performances in theatres are a great example of a sensory activity for autism.  For example, during a sensory-relaxed theatre performance, house lights are left on. That is similar to sensory-friendly movies. Moreover, there are no spotlights or other bright lights during the show. Additionally, performers prepare for a noisier audience. The performers know that children are likely to move around more during the show. 

For example, InterAction Theatre in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, gave the first sensory-friendly performance in that city in November 2018. 

Shopping Malls

Have you heard about Sensitive Santa events at a shopping mall?  Unlike regular visiting times, only a small number of parents and children meet Santa.  Furthermore, these times often occur by appointment only.  Therefore, a child has plenty of time to become comfortable. Children can take their time to feel well-adjusted to the environment. 

Finally, many stores and shopping malls offer autism hour or sensory-friendly shopping times. 

Other sensory-friendly locations

In addition, many sports arenas and tourist attractions provide a sensory backpack or sensory kit to visitors. A sensory backpack or sensory kit includes things like headphones and small fidget toys. Ultimately, sensory tools help an autistic child cope with sensory sensitivity or overload. For instance, headphones reduce noise and sound for children with sensory sensitivity. And, for example, fidget toys help a child remain calm and reduce anxiety.  

Furthermore, look for activities such as sensory-friendly yoga, offered by occupational therapist Lindsay Hall. 

Locations such as churches, libraries, swimming pools, camps, sculpture trails, and sensory gardens are places that can be sensory-friendly.  

Global pandemic and indoor activities 

Due to the global pandemic, many parents got caught between a kid and a workspace. Indoor activities for kids were needed to keep them busy, engaged, and safe! Furthermore, pandemic or not, it is always helpful to have some ideas on hand as parents. 

To get adequate lived experiences, Trish Hamilton contributed to this blog post. Trish Hamilton is a 28-year radio veteran turned Digital Marketer. She has an extensive background in all things media and enjoys writing, editing, and blogging. She lives happily with her partner, Tim and three children, Allison (23), Lauren (16), and Emerson (6).   

In January 2020, Trish decided to leave her full-time job in broadcasting to concentrate on pursuing her passion for digital marketing. She was able to secure loans and grants, was accepted into a course and even bought herself a laptop to get ready for her new adventure. And that is when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the world was put on lockdown. It all happened so fast, and it’s still happening, developing and changing every day. Here we are now in a world where working from home is the new normal. 

Initially, she thought to herself, “This is going to be fun!” However, she was not sure about the activities that might keep her son, who is a person with autism and sensory processing disorder, occupied. 

Trish Hamilton used multiple different sensory play activities to keep her kids active and occupied throughout the day. These included:  

  • Mini cars and a cookie sheet of flour – Getting the kids to play plowing using the mini-cars through the unbeaten paths. This is a fantastic imagination game.  
  • Stuffy toss – Keep all the toys in two big plastic bins. And then, create a big pile at one end of the living room, and at the other end, place the two empty bins. The object is simple, get as many toys in your own bin. So many ways to play this game, and it is simple and a guaranteed good laugh. 
  • Bubbles and sidewalk chalk – Both of these activities can work at the beach! Who doesn’t like bubbles? Sidewalk chalk is a great way to create a giant board game in your driveway or leave nice notes for friends and neighbours during an outdoor walk. 
  • Virtual Play Dates – Set up a time with a friend and Skype, Zoom, or Facebook live with friends. Have the kids show off their rooms, and toys, or even draw pictures together in real time. 
  • Minute-to-win-it type games – Easy, fun, and they do not require a lot of items to play.  Any kind of indoor party games would work. 
  • Hallway obstacle course – Use up the left-over balloons and streamers from your recent party! Try stringing streamers up and get your child to wriggle their way from end to end. For an added measure of difficulty, add balloons! 

Best Toys for an Autistic Child 

The best toys for autistic children are sensory toys. Because children with autism often have difficulty with their senses, sensory toys are, in fact, extra helpful.  Sensory toys engage the senses:  what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, but also how you move your body and head and even how you feel “inside”.  That is because there are eight senses. There are many autism sensory products, sensory tools, and sensory toys available. Remember that every child is different and will have different sensory preferences (things they like and dislike).  But you can use sensory toys to be extra engaging for learning and play. 

Hands playing with bright pink stress ball while typing on a laptop.

Sensory toys for each of the senses 

  1. Visual (vision, see, sight, eyes): Something with lights, lights that turn on or off or change colour.  A toy with a moving part that you can watch, like a bubble tube. 
  2. Auditory (hear, ears): Something that makes sound or different sounds, like a music box. Find one that plays a favourite tune or song. 
  3. Olfactory (smell, nose): Something that has a smell (usually a pleasant smell), like scented stickers or markers. 
  4. Tactile (touch, feel, skin): Something interesting to feel, different things to touch, such as a stuffed animal made out of different materials. Research, “Tactile Toys: Therapy for Tactile Dysfunctions” by Karen Hong (2018) found that tactile input effectively helps to calm children and regulate the senses 1.  
  5. Gustatory (taste, mouth): something that goes in the mouth like a chewy toy.  Also, something with taste, so even exploring food can be a sensory “tool”. 
  6. Vestibular (balance, head movement, inner ear): something that makes you move your head in space, like an indoor swing. 
  7. Proprioception (muscles, joints, body movement, move in space); something that encourages you to move, like a mini-trampoline. 
  8. Interoception (breathe, hunger, thirst, toilet, internal organs): Something that helps you connect with your inner body, like a yoga mat or yoga video or yoga book.  Doing yoga helps you connect with your inner body. 

What are fidget toys? 

One of the most common sensory products or sensory tools is a fidget toy.  Essentially, a fidget toy is a small toy, that fits in one hand and that you can “fidget” with. Fidget means to make small movements with the hands.  Fidget toys are popular for children with autism.  Furthermore, fidget toys can also combine more than one sense even though they are handheld, they can combine what a child feels, holds (movement), hears, sees, and even smells.  Thus, fidget toys are sensory toys.  Finally, fidget toys can help a child with autism stay calm or be focused on learning. 

A common DIY fidget toy or do-it-yourself fidget toy is to fill a balloon with flour or cornstarch and tie the end.  It makes a squishy, fun toy.  Of note is that it is also quiet and inexpensive!  Children, including children with autism, will enjoy making their own fidget toys like this. 

One of the most commonly purchased fidget toys in recent times is a fidget spinner.  It involves the senses of vision (watch it spin), proprioception or movement (make it spin), and even sound (hear it spin, although this may not be loud). 

Did you know that there are adult fidget toys too?  Adults also use things other than toys to fidget.  Adults might jiggle coins or keys in a pocket.  Hold a pen or pencil and move it around in their hands. 

For more sensory-friendly toy ideas, check out Carmen B Pingree’s Autism Center’s blog post. 

Additionally, explore more with this research, “The Sensory Totes Programme: Sensory-Friendly Autism Program Innovations Designed to Meet COVID-19 Challenges” by Fletcher et al., (2021), where they mention about the  caregiver’s perceptions of the benefits of sensory-friendly activities 2

All in all, this blog post covered information on activities and toys that are sensory-friendly for children with autism. We hope you incorporate these tips in your children’s life in order for them to enjoy their day and be sensory-friendly at the same time!  

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

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Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

Get expert tips and resources delivered straight to your inbox! 

  • Craft sensory-friendly experiences 
  • Understand sensory sensitivity and overload
  • Make a difference in the lives of others
  • Be the first to know when new courses and products are launched
I am interested in:(Required)
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Source

  1. Hong, K. (2018). Tactile Toys: Therapy for Tactile Dysfunctions. International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education, 7(2). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327136792_Tactile_Toys_Therapy_for_Tactile_Dysfunctions
  2. Fletcher, T. S., Wiskera, E. S., Wilbur, L. H., & Garcia, N. M. (2021). The Sensory Totes Programme: Sensory-Friendly Autism Program Innovations Designed to Meet COVID-19 Challenges. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 78(1), 44–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/14473828.2021.1943868
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