How do you feel when you stand on the beach in your bare feet? Do you enjoy the sensation of the sand between your toes, or does it make you cringe? How about the feeling of wet clothes, or a tag inside your shirt on the back of your neck? A whisper in the ear or heavy metal music blaring through a car stereo? A big bucket of slime?
To some people with disabilities, these sensory experiences can be overwhelming and can cause chaos to the structured order of their day. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how your brain manages these stimuli, and it could cause someone to be overly sensitive to things that wouldn’t bother the average person. However, you don’t need to have a diagnosis of SPD to be more sensitive to some noises, touch, tastes or smells.
How do we cope?
To most of us, the above sensations are a part of our daily lives and we have developed strategies to cope with them accordingly. We change our clothes if they’re wet, we cut off a tag if it’s scratchy, or we wash our hands if we get them dirty. We move away from noises we don’t like and might pass on dipping our fingers into that bucket of slime. However, for some learners with Autism, stimming is a coping mechanism that helps them to deal with overwhelming situations.
What is stimming?
Have you ever started biting your nails while you were waiting on a job interview? Or twirling your pen over and over while in a staff meeting to stay focused? How about toe tapping, spinning, lip biting, leg jiggling and hair twirling? These are all examples of stims we use, perhaps subconsciously, to navigate through situations that might cause stress to our minds and bodies. Most stims are harmless, however any stims that cause self harm to the person doing them should be explored with a professional, such as head banging or skin biting.
Simply put, stimming is any repetitive movement that causes some calm or relaxation to the body. Rocking back and forth, hand flapping or making repetitive sounds or noises are all examples of “stims” that are a lot of times stereotyped for people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However stimming can look, sound, and feel different for learners with ASD.
For people with Autism, understanding what they see, hear, touch and feel in their environment may be a difficult experience, and their reaction to these events are their way of trying to process through the "clutter" in their surroundings. Sensory issues often accompany autism, where the person may have difficulties processing information taken in through their senses. This might include:
- Being overly sensitive or under-reactive to touch, movement, sights or sounds.
- Activity level that is unusually high or low.
- Difficulties with coordination and/or motor skills.
- And even a presentation of challenging behaviours.
Setting Up for Success
Once you know your learner and become aware of their sensory needs, it is important to set them up for success in the environment they are in. As we described, sensory stimulation is part of everyday life, and it’s not all bad. In fact, using the five senses to explore in different ways can actually reduce anxiety and provide a sense of calm to people with and without disabilities, and might even desensitize them to some of the more triggering feelings. In our classrooms we’ve been known to set aside a time for weekly or even daily sensory exploration in order to give our learners access to different textures and experiences they may not receive in a regular classroom. Sand, water play, bubbles, slime, goop, spaghetti, music, smells and tastes are all great ways to engage your learners with sensory sensitivities.
In Physical Education, some learners need to feed their sensory sensitivities with vestibular activities. The vestibular system in the body represents the way the middle ear functions and controls our movement, motion, balance and spatial awareness. When these systems are challenged, it sometimes feels really good for our learners (picture the feeling of a roller coaster ride as an extreme example!). This approach is a playful way to help promote performance and tolerance to movement activities. For example:
- Sprinting at full speed in a large open space before coming to Physical Education class.
- Swinging on a swing to feel the sense of going back and forth before participating in an activity that requires a lot of focus.
- Sitting on a scooter and spinning around in different directions as a way to fidget.
- Sitting on a yoga ball and bouncing up and down to help find a sense of calm.
These activities challenge against gravity to help learners who have difficulties with balance, self-regulation and also adjusting to typical sensory input. Connecting with an Occupation Therapist or medical professional with this area of expertise is important to help determine which sensory activities are appropriate for your learner.
In order to set learners up for success before (learning time… time where they need to focus), consider a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a group of meaningful activities that are purposely integrated into a learner’s day to achieve a certain purpose. A sensory diet can be planned for and implemented with the help of an Occupational Therapist, and is most successful when it is a joint venture between home, school and/or therapy.
Some goals and benefits of a sensory diet include:
- Increased attention span
- Reduces sensory-seeking (e.g., constantly looking for certain stimuli and not able to focus otherwise)
- Calms an over-active person
- Teaches self-regulation
If you are going to introduce sensory exploration into your classroom or educational setting, be sure to follow our tips below:
- Provide Structure and Safety: Ensure that sensory time involves some structure and some rules. Perhaps sensory bins are only used at a certain time of day, or in a certain area of the room. If you’re currently working in a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might consider creating separate sensory bins, containers or materials for each learner to limit sharing. Be wary of using small, loose parts with learners who tend to mouth items to prevent choking. In Physical Education class, allow the learner to access their sensory tools for a designated amount of time before and even during class in order to help them focus and regulate to participate at their best.
- Try again and again: Just because a student doesn’t enjoy sand play the first time you try it, doesn’t mean it’s something they will never enjoy. Sensory time is a great opportunity to show learners different ways of interacting with materials to enjoy them. Perhaps they wear rubber gloves the first few times they try it or experiment with wet sand before dry. Provide different instruments for picking it up or transferring it from one container to another without having to touch it. This is where connecting with a professional like a physiotherapist or occupational therapist can come in handy. There may be physical activities and specialized equipment that the learner can access and participate in that will help add a sensory component to your Physical Education class. For example, during movement exploration activities, allow the learner to spin and explore their body through space within the safe boundaries of a mat. You can try teaching your Physical Education class outside and doing the same lesson you have planned. Perhaps the learner who enjoys the wind blowing in their face, or the cold feeling of the snow can provide the sensory input they need.
- Let the Learner Take the Lead: Sensory play can be messy! While you may have a rule or two about keeping materials on the table or out of mouths, let your learners take the lead with how they choose to explore. Learners who are verbal can comment on how they are feeling. Non-verbal learners might make different noises to express their feelings. Sensory play can be student-led and explored, allow them to manipulate the materials in their own way. Physical Education class is a very fast-paced, busy and even noise subject. Sometimes it may take your learner more time to get used to all of the energy surrounding them. The lights, echoes and even the space alone is likely very different from their classroom. If the learner expresses that they need more time during their sensory break, allow it! They know what they need and you can help them achieve it.
- Collect Data: We at PBTL are data junkies. You don’t have to take data, but it’s a great idea to take note of learner’s moods before sensory and after. Are they more calm and regulated? Were they more productive, or was it the opposite? Learners can even self-assess! What sensory activities helped to self-regulate when they were sad, versus when they were feeling heightened or anxious? Note the most successful strategies for future use.
- Learners may choose a picture from the choice board of a sensory activity they would like to explore. Click the image and follow the link provided.
- Learners can watch the videos and get a “hands-off” view into the sensory experience. Ask guiding questions such as, “What do you think that feels like?” “Do you think you’d like to try that?” Some learners with sensory sensitivities to touch may prefer to simply watch the videos to relax.
- As an extended activity, invite learners to gather their own materials and explore along with the videos. “Can you blow a bubble like that?” “What do you hear when you do that?”
This choice board was trialed and tested on our own virtual platform. Our learners loved the calming effect and relaxing music the videos provided. We used the videos as a “how-to” tool to provide instructions on appropriate play as well, especially with those materials that learners were at first reluctant to try. We use the choice board as part of our everyday sensory break routine and sometimes even as a positive reinforcer for those who look forward to the videos. We invite you to share your successes with us!