By Elisah Gelladuga, COTA
Sensory toys are an absolute must-have in any pediatric (UK: paediatric) therapist's toolbox. Often, it takes a series of trial and error to implement just the right tools. Before application of these toys, it is important as a therapist to understand the underlying purpose of using them.
Are you using the activity to calm an over-responsive child? Or are you using it to increase input to an under-responsive or sensory-seeking child?
Once I've answered those questions, that's when I pull out my toolbox of kid-favorite toys! Each of these can be easily purchased, at a fairly low price, on Amazon. Read on for some examples, plus a case study...
[Links are for US delivery; other online stores are available; I have no affiliation with the sellers]
A classic go-to plush can never go wrong! Plush toys are a great way to provide sensory calming or sensory stimulation. In addition, using plush toys are perfect to incorporate in treatment, to facilitate pretend play skills and social skills at an early age.
Not only a kid-favorite, but a personal favorite for de-stressing. Regulation Putty™ is fantastic to target fine motor skills and strengthening, but also provides sensory input from the pressure of the putty. I keep a stash with putty of different levels of resistance; this allows you to determine which level of resistance works for each child.
Vibrating sensory toys/hand massagers are an effective way to promote deep and consistent sensory stimulation for sensory cravers. Plus, they are low maintenance, easy to store and portable! Hand-held vibration massagers are also superb to use for kids who are sensory defensive and have goals of tolerating a haircut. I sometimes use this tool to simulate a hair razor and gradually work my way up, from using the massager on their hands until they can eventually tolerate the massager on their heads.
Jay is a newly-referred 5-year-old child, diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD). Before beginning our first occupational therapy session, I asked his mother:
What Jay’s daily routine consisted of
What his favorite toys and games were
What specific goals mom and the family had, so that I could include them into sessions
Mom explained that one of her main goals for Jay is to be able to tolerate a haircut. She further explained that Jay is unable to successfully sit down and receive a proper haircut, due to tactile defensiveness and fear of the loud buzzing sound of the razor near his head. He often had extreme behavioral reactions, cried loudly, and would self-talk (stim), in order to self-regulate. The first 2-3 sessions with Jay consisted of rapport building and establishing a foundation of trust between child and therapist. Once that was established, I moved onto slowly introducing the use of the vibrating toy. Initially, Jay was hesitant and fearful when I presented the toy, due to the loud buzzing sound. So I allowed him control of the toy on my own forearm and hand, to assure him that it was not harmful. Once Jay was comfortable with controlling and handling the toy, we counted 1-5 seconds of alternating turns on whose hand and forearm would get ‘tickled’ with the toy. Gradually, Jay was able to tolerate the sensation and sound from the toy on his arm - then shoulder, neck, and eventually, Jay was tolerating the vibration on his head. To promote ongoing success and future transition, I explained to Jay’s mom the importance of carry-over of techniques - from therapy input into the home environment - and demonstrated how I used the toy during sessions.
Yogarilla Cards™ are a fun way to engage children of all ages to participate in yoga or body awareness poses, for sensory and coordination skills. Children may not want to participate in yoga when first introduced to the activity, so I incorporate the cards into obstacle courses to keep engagement going! Modification of the poses can be easily applied to meet the child's 'just-right' challenge.
Last, but not least, Pop the Pig™ is the perfect game to target various developmental skills (e.g. fine motor skills, color recognition, turn-taking, attention skills, etc.) and gives proprioceptive input while playing the game. Kids love the deep pressure from pushing both hands onto the pig's head and they never seem to get tired of it!
Proprioceptive - Best Practice (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://sensory-processing.middletownautism.com/sensory-strategies/strategies-according-to-sense/proprioceptive/