“Squeeze me.” Gabe asks for the tenth time, “Squeeze me hard mom.”
I lean over, and press his body against mine, gripping my hands together at the wrist behind him and squeezing as hard as I can. “Harder,” he says quietly.
My oldest son Gabriel is a “sensory seeker.” He needs deep pressure (proprioceptive) input so that his body can stay calm and organized. He also seeks vestibular input (that which is related to balance and movement). As a toddler he would climb to the very tippy top of the jungle gym and then stand on it. Because of his increased need for sensory input, I have acquired a virtual arsenal of therapy tools to help him meet his needs. And with my youngest son Matthew being diagnosed with Asperger’s just months ago, having these tools at my disposal has become even more vital.
For Gabriel, I am happy to report that the time and effort I have put into meeting his sensory needs over the past few years has paid off. Gabriel is learning to find adaptive ways he can independently get his sensory needs met, like asking for what he needs versus throwing himself on the ground or spinning through the house, knocking everything down in his path. Matthew, on the other hand, is just beginning this journey and I learn a little more about his needs each day. But, with Gabriel’s successes under my belt, I am optimistic that Matthew will achieve similar results with the help from the same therapy tools his brother benefitted from.
If you have a child that seeks sensory stimulation and/or benefits from deep pressure input, and could use some tools to help him or her learn to self-regulate, here are some tricks of the trade that have helped my children. (But, please remember to use common sense and consult your child’s physician or OT before trying any of the therapy tools / techniques below):
Keeping Up the Pressure
Spio Suit. I have found a fabulous company that has created a lycra suit that children can wear under their clothes to give them “grounding” all day long. The theory behind this is that the gentle pressure provided enables your child to know where his or her body is in space while engaging in normal day-to-day activities. This helps him or her to maintain an appropriate arousal level while participating in social interaction, writing, and sports activities. The lycra suit comes in three different styles: The full body suit (essentially like a girl’s one-piece bathing suit or a wrestlers leotard); a long pant (great for motor planning activities); or a long-sleeve shirt (exceptional for writing / fine motor activities). For additional information log onto: www.spioworks.com
Weighted Compression Vest. When Gabe was in kindergarten, this was my LIFESAVER! This tool is really a simple Velcro vest (with spandex elasticity) that fits tightly around the child’s chest. The pressure from the tight vest aids in self-regulation by giving consistent proprioceptive input to aid self-regulation and to provide calming input. It contains small pockets around the outside so that you can add weights. This allows you to control how heavy it is based on your child’s needs or age. For example, you can add more weights as your child grows, or when he or she is looking for greater input. When Gabriel came home from kindergarten completely dysregulated and looking for input he would wear this vest, with as much as eight pounds of lead in it for 20 minutes of every hour until bedtime. And it worked! For more information log onto: www.southpawenterprises.com
Heavy Blanket. This is a common household item for many families that have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Autism [I’m not sure what you mean, but it should be spelled out anyway.], but also one that is underutilized. Although the blanket is great for a child to use while watching TV (as a guard against under-arousal), or while sleeping (as a means of providing calming input for sleep), it has many other uses, as well. Try draping the blanket over your child’s shoulders, and have him or her carry it up and down the stairs a few times. When the child takes a step, the weight of the blanket—aided by gravity—pushes down on his or her shoulders. If the blanket is too cumbersome, try using a lap pad. Another way to use the blanket is to wrap your child in it (“burrito-style”) and have him or her do log rolls. The pressure of the blanket, with the push of his or her body against the floor, gives extra input. Be creative – this is one of the best things you (probably) already own. If not, here’s a website to obtain more information: www.beanblanket.com
Backpack. Using your child’s backpack can be an easy and fun way for him or her to get proprioceptive input. If you decide to try this, make sure the backpack fits your child correctly, without being too big or too small, and be sure to use one that has padding on the shoulders to keep him or her comfortable. Once the backpack is fitted, you are ready to load it up. Make an imaginary game, like “Book Delivery” where your child carries books from room to room. You can also play “Grocery Man” by filling up the backpack with canned food items. One of my son’s favorite games (now that he is older) is playing “Delivery Guy” on his bike. I just fill up his backpack with something I’ve borrowed from the neighbor (real or imagined) and send him down the block to drop it off. Works like a charm. Gabriel thinks this is a privilege, so he is always ready to help! Widely available.
Calisthenics. With my husband being a former Marine, I find that some good old fashioned physical training is a great way to keep my boys regulated. Jumping jacks, sit ups, pull-ups (we have a great door-mounted pull-up bar right near our family room), pushups and more give the boys the feeling of being strong, and I like how calm and organized they are after just the simplest of “training exercises.” Add in a dash of creativity—like playing “Captain” instead of “Simon Says”—where the same rules apply but they get to pretend that they’re in the Marines (or in Star Wars, as the case may be!). Widely available.
To summarize, seeing to it that children get the proprioceptive input their bodies need, can have a huge impact on behavior, which can help with social acceptance and self-esteem. Many of these items can be easily incorporated into your child’s daily routine at school (often going unnoticed by peers) as a part of his or her sensory diet. Just remember, a small amount of proprioceptive input can have a calming effect on a child that can last for hours.
Movin’ and Groovin’ for Vestibular Input
Mini Trampoline. This is a common sensory tool for many families; however, if you don’t have one, just know that you don’t have to spend a fortune on a “therapy-grade” one. I own the Jumpsmart™ Electronic Trampoline because of its triangular shape, ergonomic and intuitive handle bars, and integrated sound system. Just think, by having a trampoline that counts up (or down) for your child, he or she can get quality movement with less hands-on guidance from you, because all you have to say is, “Go do 100 jumps!” or “Can you jump for an entire song?” The Good News: All of that jumping provides great vestibular input, and making sensory activities fun encourages self-regulation. For information on the Jumpsmart™ Trampoline, and other great products for sensorimotor input, log onto: www.digginactive.com
Egg Chair. The people at IKEA deserve some kind of “Genius-Idea” award for this one! Not only does this chair offer great vestibular input because it spins smoothly and safely without any exposed parts, but also because it closes up to create a quiet “hideout” inside. This is a great way for kids to retreat and regroup after a long day. (A cautionary note: Be sure to check with your child’s physician or OT regarding the advisability of spinning.) IKEA also offers this at a reasonable price ($79 US) and in multiple colors. www.ikea.com
Hammock. Of all the ways to get vestibular input, this has to be the most relaxing. When we first got our hammock, all three of my sons would climb in on top of my husband and jostle for position. Unlike a traditional swing, the hammock allows for side-to-side motion, thus providing a different kind of vestibular movement. Gabriel prefers the side-to-side motion over traditional back-and-forth swinging both in therapy, and at home. You can find a variety of hammocks for sale, from many retailers. My advice is to choose a freestanding hammock with quality construction and frame because if your kids are anything like mine, it’s going to get a lot of use! Widely available.
Rocking Chair. We have two rocking chairs in the house, a small child-size one that my father built for me when I was two, and a full-size leather La-Z-Boy® that fits nearly all of us at once – or at least it did when the boys were younger! Rocking can have a calming effect on Gabriel’s sensory system. Reading and rocking with the boys is a nightly activity [pastime???] at our house, and most often we will use a heavy blanket while doing so. The combination of simultaneous vestibular and proprioceptive input [Does that work?] offers a strong dose of needed sensory input and calms Gabriel, and often Matthew, down almost instantly. Also, our kid-size rocking chair offers my sons the opportunity to keep their bodies moving on demand; encourages self-regulation; and keeps their bodies active while they watch a movie or TV. Widely available.
A Concluding Message
Giving children access to the types of tools discussed in this article helps them to meet their sensorimotor needs. It’s also a great way to help them learn to self-regulate in a socially acceptable manner. Without access to safe options for movement, children often choose less acceptable activities, like running through the house playing tag; hurling themselves toward objects; or jumping from bed-to-bed in their rooms.
Having the tools our kids need on-hand so that they can learn to self-regulate is a great investment in your child’s present wellbeing and future growth. I encourage you to talk with your occupational therapist to discuss ways that these items (or others) might benefit your child.
This article orginally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Autism Spectrum Quarterly.