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Professional Corner

Sensory Integration for the Child With Autism

Sensory Integration in the Religious Education Classroom-Sensory Integration For the Child With Autism in the Religious Education Classroom

By Dr. Karla Kay Akins

Dr. Akins presented this document at the Indiana Autism Society conference on November 4, 2000. Her topic was "Autism and Worship: How Churches Can Support Families Living with Autism." She has twin sons, age 5, with autism.

These suggestions apply just as readily to secular environments.
Printed with permission.

The great thing about accommodating a child with Autism in your classroom is that these changes will benefit everyone! All kids can benefit from Sensory Integration techniques and activities. Not only will they benefit, but they will also become better learners, have increased attention spans, and remember what they learn!

Here are a few examples of things you can do to increase Sensory Integration experiences into your curriculum.

Begin your class with a guided multi-sensory activity. Simply allowing "free play" at the beginning of class is a stressful way for children with Autism to make the transition from leaving their parent/caregiver to becoming part of your group. Have materials out on the table, ready for all children, and that are easy to do without supervision.

Ask the parent before the classes begin what their child's favorite activities are, and find a way to work them into this transitional moment.

Try to come up with an unusual way to do "regular" activities. Ask your students for ideas!

When you plan table activities, be aware that modifications will need to be made for the children who are sensitive to touch. Materials such as paper mache, glue, finger paints, clay, etc., may cause the child to have a negative response. Encourage the use of tools.

Since two of my students have a fascination with transportation toys, I allow them to paint with them and do clay with them. They simply drive their toy cars through the paint that I apply to their paper, or use their toy cars to shape the clay.

Visual cues are very important. I cannot stress this enough. Everything in the room should have a picture explaining its use and purpose. On the tables the students work at, use a picture symbol of a person sitting and working.

Put pictures on containers of items of what belongs in the container. Place these same pictures on the shelves where the containers are kept. This is very soothing and welcoming to a child with Autism.

Order and predictability are very important, because the primary emotion in Autism is fear. These visual cues help them predict the purposes of their environment, and remove the fear of the unknown. Also, the use of a picture schedule, and pictures or the child's name taped to the floor of where he or she is to sit during circle time is very important.

Again, predictability helps the child with Autism function smoothly and without fearfulness and stress. The more you can inform the child with Autism about his environment and what is going to happen next, the more success you will have behaviorally.

A "safe place" in the room is an excellent tool for the over-stressed student. Providing a quiet time place will help the over aroused child to calm himself and will prevent a full-blown tantrum (I call these meltdowns! If you've ever seen one, you'd know what I mean!)

A few signs that a child is over aroused might include self-injury, poking at others, loud outbursts, inappropriate giggling (just to name a few.) Ask the caregiver what cues and clues their child might give to show he or she needs a break from the rest of the group.

The "quiet place" should be an area that is off by itself, such as a little table with a cloth over it so the child can go inside, or a reading corner with a beanbag chair or rocking chair to sit on. Create a wonderful space for the over-stimulated child to escape to.

Many people with Autism have a difficult time filtering out extraneous noises. Using a carpet on the floor will help to minimize these sounds.

And if you know that a loud noise is coming, it is wise to warn the student with Autism.

I am always amazed that children's classrooms are usually full of bright posters and wall hangings! That is the American culture's interpretation of what children like! When in fact many children, not just children with Autism, are completely distracted by all the visual stimulation. A wise educator, who wants the attention of their students, will keep bulletin boards, wall hangings, and brightly colored walls to a minimum.

Encouraging help at clean up time is a great way for the child with Sensory Integration issues to use their big muscles. Asking these kids to carry heavy chairs or books helps their brain to organize and also has a calming effect on the nervous system. (It also keeps the room looking good!)

Allow your children with Autism to be classroom helpers. This will give them more opportunities for the movement that many of these kids crave. Erasing the blackboard, washing tables, and running errands are a few ideas.

Never punish a child with Autism who seeks out movement by taking away an outdoor playtime. This will only increase fidgeting and outbursts. These kids need to MOVE.

For circle and group activities, try providing beanbag chairs or individual rugs so that the student with Autism understands where his position is in space. This provides him with a physical boundary. If the child is young or has even more difficulty understanding where his "space" is, the use of a box to sit in works well.

My son, Isaac, needed this visual boundary at first. A rug or a taped area was not clear enough for him. So his teacher used a banana box with colored paper on the inside. Miraculously, Isaac's behavior improved during circle time 100%.

These kids need visual and physical boundaries. It's our duty to provide them!

Begin your circle activities with an activity that includes jumping. Jumping helps increase the brain's organization and postural control.

If the child is poking and hitting during circle or table time, allow him to hold an object in his hands, color, write, or manipulate a toy. I find that for all children, more specifically busy boys, allowing them to do these activities increases their attention spans and retention. Koosh balls are very popular for this purpose. Other ideas include a balloon filled with rice, flour, or sand; soft squeezable balls—anything that's squeezable!

Better than simply manipulating a toy or object, try to make all your "story times" interactive. For example, if your story is about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, don't just tell the story, use three-dimensional objects to do the telling! Get some Fisher Price little people and have the children manipulate them across a "sea" of saran wrap on the table. Make play-dough trees and some fish to put in the water. Think outside the box!

Use your imagination! And don't think that older kids don't benefit from this type of activity. In my eighteen years of teaching, I have learned that even teens enjoy these types of lessons the best!

Do not limit your teaching space to one table or area. For the typical American child, I estimate their attention span to be about one minute per their age. And I am probably being generous in my estimate. If I am teaching five year olds, I need to change activities about every five minutes.

This takes a lot of preparation on the part of the teacher, but preparation means less behavior issues. If I experience problems with behaviors in my classrooms, I point to myself first.

  • How prepared was I?
  • Were we too long in this activity?
  • Did I provide enough three-dimensional visual cues/stimulation?

Ask yourself these types of questions when preparing for your next lesson.

Change where you are working frequently. Why have just one place for circle? Why not have a singing place, a story place, and a praying place? Divide activities up so that you are doing something different about every five to ten minutes in a different spot.

Work with the wiggles, not against them. Allow kids of all abilities to stand rather than sit. Some kids just do better standing.

Also, why not allow them to work on the floor on their stomachs? You can also put bungee cords around the legs of chairs to provide a sensory input that will assist a child to stay seated longer, if table work is required for any length of time. Partially inflated air pillows work well for kids to sit on, too. They allow for a certain amount of wiggling that isn't distracting and disruptive.

Ask yourself these questions when preparing your lesson:

  1. Have I provided something the children can smell?
  2. Have I provided something the children can taste?
  3. Have I provided something the children can see clearly?
  4. Have I provided something the children can feel with their hands?
  5. Have I provided something the children can hear clearly without extra noises?
  6. Have I provided a clear picture schedule?
  7. Do I have enough activities to allow the children plenty of experiences without running out of things to do? (Remember, too much free time can be very frustrating and increase negative behaviors in kids of all abilities.)

Will my students with Autism be able to participate in these activities? How can I change them to allow them to do so?

After some time, and some successful classes, you will discover that accommodating the child with Autism has made you a better teacher! Your imagination will be stimulated, and the possibilities and variations in your lessons will make the learning experiences for the students even more exciting.

© 2000 Dr. Karla Kay Akins For more information about Sensory Integration visit the Sensory Integration Network on-line at http://www.sinetwork.org/. You can contact Dr. Akins at [email protected].

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Last modified: January 26, 2013