By Benjamin Farrey-Latz, author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up
Even if you don’t work directly with students with special needs, you’ve probably heard that children (and adults) with autism often have sensory sensitivities. These sensitivities can be around any of the five senses, including sensitivity to light, sound, or touch. The amount of sensory input students must process during the day can be overwhelming. For example, a loud noise that many people would jump at but move on from quickly could cause a student with autism a lot of anxiety. It may take that student longer to calm down.
In a classroom, students may need a break from the visual or auditory stimuli in the room. It is important to build in time during the day for sensory breaks. Breaks can include scheduled times during the day that are always for sensory time and unscheduled times when you can see a student is having difficulty and could use a break. An occupational therapist is an excellent resource for sensory tools.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
At the Desk or Table
A box can be set up with a variety of materials that students can use at their desks or tables, including fidgets, squeeze balls, stretchy toys, putty, or modeling clay. One possible resource for sensory items is the “Calming Toys & Products” page at the National Autism Resources website. Coloring or drawing can be a nice calming activity, so include coloring books, paper, and crayons, markers, or other supplies. Depending on how comfortable you are with them, chewing gum or hard candy can be helpful for some students. Of course, it is also important to ensure that these foods are permitted by parents and the school. I’ve often seen hard candy passed out in general education classes before a big test. Additionally, cushions with bumps or other textures and rocking chairs can be soothing and can provide some needed sensory input to students who need it.
Sensory Area in the Classroom
Some classrooms have a special area for sensory time. The area may have beanbag chairs, a trampoline, an exercise bike, or a net swing, among other things. It may also have any of the small items that students can use at their desks or tables. It’s a good idea to have a timer so students know when they need to be done. Sensory time is often enjoyable, but students need to know it has an end time. Visual timers are great, and for some students, adding counting down from ten when time is up can help them transition.
Full-Class Sensory Activities
Websites such as GoNoodle are great resources for calming activities as well as energy-building ones. If possible, turn down the lights and have a quiet time. Breathing exercises are also a great calming tool.
Separate Sensory Room in the Building
In some schools, the room where students have occupational therapy may be available to use when the therapists are not busy with students. Schools also may have other rooms set up where you can bring students to calm themselves or get out some energy. Unfortunately, this may not be an option in all schools.
Some students may just need to be active for a little while, and activities such as push-ups, wall push-ups, or a supervised walk in the halls may be helpful. Students may also need a weighted vest or blanket to help them self-regulate. Some students with autism respond well to deep pressure, and the weight of the vest or blanket can provide that pressure.
These are just a few of the sensory break options that you can use to help students navigate their day. Feel free to add more ideas in the comments section.
Benjamin Farrey-Latz is a special education teacher at Jefferson Community School (grades 2–6) in the Minneapolis School District. He has worked in education since 1996 in private, public, and charter schools as both a general and special education teacher. After working several years at the elementary level, Benjamin completed his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. His thesis focused on methods of teaching social skills to children with special needs.
Benjamin is the author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up.
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