There has been a rise in sensorial exploration activities within schools, enrichment centres, and even amusement parks in the last few years. In numerous ways, these activities are being progressively inculcated in our environment. We can easily find sensory toys in online shops, textured footpaths in playgrounds, and even art projects in early childhood schools that encourage messy play through exploring paints and other mediums by using their hands. If you log in to social media platforms, there are tutorial videos on how to make your own sensorial toys or just people fidgeting with said toys. Even influencers are posting advertisements and promotions on the toys adults may be looking to buy for themselves or their children.
What makes sensory activities so popular now and are they beneficial?
The answer is…
Sensory activities are activities aimed at stimulating the sensory receptors in our bodies – from our eyes that help us see, to the bottom of our feet that help us walk and balance. Upon stimulation, the sensory receptors will send signals to the brain, thus forming neural pathways and synapses in the brain. These synapses will allow the brain to learn and retain both new and old information, especially in young children.
Since there are no right or wrong answers in sensory play, children with autism are free to explore and make as many ‘mistakes’ as they would like as they discover how things work in the world - how people interact with their surroundings and people around them;how their bodies react to different sensations. By going through a diversity of rich experiences, sensory activities allow for greater holistic development.
Let us look at the 4 different ways how sensory activities can help children with autism:
Improve Coordination and Motor Development
We all know the slime craze that arose in the recent years, and how many adults and children with autism are making their own slime from scratch and kneading it like a piece of dough as a form of therapy or entertainment. Apart from building hand-eye coordination, children with autism get to practise fine motor skills when they squeeze, pull apart, open and close their hands to release, and scoop things like slime, sand, and even liquids like water and paint.
Many times, caretakers and educators emphasize a lot on hands-on play, but they tend to forget about the feet. Unlike our hands, the sensory receptors in our feet play a major role in the development of standing balance and movement control (Kennedy & Inglis, 2002). By exposing children with autism to running barefoot on grass and sand, or kicking a ball, they can practise gross motor skills like balancing, walking, running, jumping, squatting, and hitting with their legs more efficiently.
Develop Self-Awareness and Self-Control
For children with autism who have sensitive hands or feet, sensory activities are good opportunities for them to use the non-sensitive parts of their body to build a comfortable relationship between seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching different materials or surfaces. This helps to bring their awareness to body parts that they might have never noticed before. For example, a child with autism may not enjoy touching sand with their hands, but if we try to get them to touch it with their feet instead, they may appreciate the sensation and eventually progress to touching it with their hands once they feel more comfortable. Moreover, it can help in bringing awareness to certain parts of their feet like the spaces between their toes where sand can get stuck in and the weight distribution throughout their feet as they exert pressure on sand.
In addition, sensory toys are also good at activating a calming stimulus for children with autism, especially for those with sensory processing difficulties. As they put their focus onto the toys or objects and forget about the source of their distress, it allows for the development of self-control and coping skills.
Increase Brain Activity and Cognitive Skills
As mentioned before, sensory activities can help in developing neural pathways of the brain. Different activities can stimulate different parts of the brain: frontal (cognitive thinking and movement), parietal (integrating information and math skills), occipital (visual perception), and temporal lobe (memory and auditory skills). The five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) stimulate the lobes, thus encouraging the formation of synapses (Gascoyne, 2016). By forming more synapses, it will be easier for children with autism to learn new and preserve new concepts and skills which will likely boost their cognitive skills.
Apart from skills like solving problems, creative thinking, and concepts such as cause and effect, children with autism can also improve their focus and attention. For example, when a child with autism is interested in sensory activities, they would practise eye contact towards the objects or toys and towards everyone else around them. As they practise on their focus and attention during engaging sensory activities, they will be able to practise and generalise said skills in other settings.
Boost Communication and Language
As children with autism are exposed to various types of stimulations, they may become more comfortable with sensory activities, which would make the activities more of a reinforcer than ‘work’. They may also feel inclined to do more of the activities they enjoy and may even be motivated to join other children who are playing along and interacting with such sensory materials.
Although children with autism would perform only parallel play (playing side by side without influencing each other, but are interested with what the other is playing) initially, they can progress to associative and cooperative play with time and guidance. With further support by caretakers and educators, they can practise social skills like waiting and taking turns to play with the sensory toys, sharing toys, and asking and exchanging toys with others.
Upon using their hands to paint, walking on textured paths or tasting new foods, they can learn new adjectives, like ‘dry’, ‘wet, ‘smooth’, ‘rough’, ‘sour’, ‘sweet’, and many others. They also get the opportunity to express their feelings, letting others know if they like or dislike the sensations and learn to ask for more or stop the activity.
All in all, the benefits of sensory activities link back to strengthening the many areas of development for children with autism. For children with sensory processing issues, these activities can develop self-coping skills, which can help in the long run as they would be able to focus more on other things by reducing the need to cope with their lack of stimulation or overstimulation. Furthermore, by boosting the formation of synapses in the brain, it may increase the likelihood and speed of learning and retaining new concepts, allowing them to store information better.
With that, I hope to see more caregivers and educators start integrating sensory activities into lessons or tasks at home for children as early as possible.
Written by Alisha.
Gascoyne, S. (2016). Sensory play: Play in the EYFS (Vol. 1). London, England: Andrews UK Limited.
Kennedy, P. M., & Inglis, J. T. (2002). Distribution and behaviour of glabrous cutaneous receptors in the human foot sole. The Journal of Physiology, 538(3), 995-1002. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2001.013087