ASI WISE was recently invited to deliver a presentation about Autism and sensory issues to a UK National Autistic Society meeting. Our presentations to the audience addressed the science and evidence behind autism and explored a families experience of sensory integration therapy.
Since the presentation we have had interesting conversations with some parents who attended. A common theme has been parents discovering that motor and praxis difficulties are part of sensory integration theory and therapy, and that ‘sensory’ in autism isn’t just about sensitivity.
Here is a great blog by an adult with autism who describes those sensory integration difficulties from visual scanning to actually doing.
It’s the summer holidays for most schools in England, including my kid’s schools. I’m well known for my love of messy/ tactile play, and summer holidays and messy play are made to go together.
First of all, can I just say that messy play is not just about the sensory input, it’s not a “sensory session”, it’s certainly not a substitute for “sensory integration therapy”?
All play is sensory.
All activity is sensory.
Messy play is a about normal development and learning through a playful activity using tactile experiences and experimentation. It should be fun, it can be intensely therapeutic, and it can form a part of sensory integration therapy session, but overuse of the word “sensory” for activities like this weakens the power of true sensory integration therapy.
Second of all, can I just say that messy play is not a substitute for natural tactile experiences? Messy play is not a substitute for muddy walks, tree climbing, animal handling and other important life and learning experiences. It can scaffold and enable those activities for children who find these experiences difficult to tolerate, but there’s nothing like nature and the great outdoors for kids’ sensory skills.
Here are some of the reasons I love messy play…
It teaches basic cookery skills, but nobody has to actually eat the product
Through making recipes, you can practice opening packages, pouring, measuring, stirring (and holding the bowl still at the same time) and following a recipe. But you don’t have to worry about food hygiene, if the child drops it on the floor, picks their nose, spits, or anything els. You don’t have to pretend it’s delicious. But there is still a tangible result.
It teaches flexibility of thinking and problem solving
So many times I say to kids “OK, that doesn’t look like it does on my picture, what did we do wrong?”, followed by “OK, let’s try that then!”. It’s amazing to watch our children move from “it’s gone wrong, bin it” to experimenting to try and improve the outcome. When I hear “it’s too runny, add more flour” I smile, I count this as a breakthrough parenting moment.
It can be really helpful to use non-specific language, I love seeing that look and a laugh when I say ‘you need a good amount of this’ or ‘give it a squirt of that’. I say we’re working on estimating.
It teaches art, creativity and scientific experimentation
We’ve made beach scenes out of shaving foam and cornflour gloop, farms from rice and silly string and just beautiful visual effects from any range of strange concoctions. I love that moment of “what happens if I mix this with that?”. So long as you’ve checked what you’re using properly, to make sure it’s safe, the worst that will happen is a sticky mess.
Beware of borax as a substitute in cheap homemade slime recipes!
It teaches communication
It can be a great motivator that isn’t food-based; practising choice-making, turn-taking and asking for help is really easy with a tin of shaving foam and some dry pasta. You can follow a recipe, practising reading and maths. Make visual recipes pictures of the scoops of flour and oil, with laminated recipes so the child can tick off each step they do – wiping clean at the end. Get older kids to research their own recipes on the internet and print them off ready for the session.
It teaches motor skills and tactile discrimination
Opening packets, pouring to a measure and sprinkling need I go on? And then squeezing, pressing, rolling, stretching and cutting. It’s amazing for fine motor skill development. You can hide things in a messy play tray or a ball of playdough for the child to find and choose the perfect texture.
It exposes the child or young person to new sensations
You will make lots of smells with microwaveable soap kits, you will spill liquids, you will touch textures and the outcome is often unpredictable.
It can help with food aversions
Food-based textures and odours can become familiar through messy play. Exploration of food and food-like substances in a calm, fun activity without the pressure and anxiety of being pushed to eat can help to break down anxiety responses to foods, meals and eating.
Or at least, you should make sure it is.
So, with all of that in mind, Over the next few days, I’ll give you 6 of my favourite recipes, one for each week of the English summer holidays. There are loads of recipes out there, I have a whole book of slime recipes (yes, really) but these ones are tried and tested and hopefully varied.
Here are some great hand-eye coordination activities for clients across the lifespan – some are especially good for teens! Try these with tweenies and teens with difficulties with sensory-motor coordination, to get them off devices and outdoors over the summer.
Our seven senses are critical to early development. Watch this video below to see more.
Ayres (1972) defined sensory integration as “the neurological process that organises sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”
When they do not work well, or the environment we live in does not allow this to happen, we can’t get the sensory information our bodies and brain need. This interferes with our development, learning and participation in all the activities of our everyday lives.
“Sensory integration difficulties can influence self-regulation, movement, learning and interaction with others.”
I meet so many parents who are concerned about their children’s motor or sensory processing skills who tell me their child never 4-point crawled, or did so only briefly. They proudly tell me how their child was ahead of their motor milestones and walked early, and never realise how important crawling is.
What is so special about crawling?
In crawling, the baby supports their weight on their hands and arms, this works wonders for developing shoulder girdle stability and proprioceptive awareness of the hands and arms which is foundational for fine motor skills like handwriting, fastening clothing, threading, sewing, crafting etc. Crawling also requires the baby to hold their core flat and stable off the ground, developing core stability against gravity. It also puts the baby’s neck into extension (ie bent back so that the baby is looking forwards not at the ground), this activates areas of the brain stem and supports baby’s developing understanding of their relationship with gravity and thus vestibular processing.
But what good is telling you all this now if your baby wasn’t a crawler? My youngest child was a very proficient bum shuffler, he could get anywhere over any surface (but not steps!) very quickly shuffling along on his bum. If I put him into the tummy time position, he just laid there and cried until I sat him up. I knew crawling was important for his development and that bum shufflers are late to walk, but I couldn’t make him do it once he’d learned a really efficient way to get where he was going!
So now that he’s a confident walker, we’re going back to crawling activities, and I thought I’d share some of the activities we do without any extra equipment at home to get those crawling benefits…
Going back to crawling…
Climbing! There’s a lot of motor planning and problem-solving in this as well, depending on where you climb. Over rocks, up muddy hills, up slides (you will get looks from other mums), in soft play, anywhere where they need to use their hands to support their movement is good by me
Cars and small world toys- some kids I know will squat down on their feet and use their hands to play, if this is your kid try setting up a small world where the kid has to reach far enough that they have to support their weight with their hands to reach the middle.
Big floor art, floor puzzles etc. We love messy art at the best of times, but if you can get a roll of lining paper on the floor to do your art on, you can work on shoulder girdle stability, prone extension and motor planning while you do it.
Tunnels, those pop up tunnels you can get for kids are great for encouraging crawling (you can’t bum shuffle through one, we speak from experience!)
Ball pools, he loves falling face first in them and then crawling back to standing up.
Ditch the train tables, lego tables and tuff tray stands. I know they make tidying up easier and are more comfy for parents, but playing on the floor is about so much more than the game.