Many children with autism experience difficulty with everyday sensory stimulation; this can be related to noise, touch, taste textures or a variety of sensitivities. The world around an autistic child is likely to cause anxiousness; this can not only affect the child but also how the childcare provider involves them in day-to-day learning activities.
The three main areas which people with autism generally have difficulty with are: social communication, social interaction and social imagination. This means that a child may struggle to form friendships, will prefer to spend time alone and will struggle to engage in imaginative play and activities alongside their peers.
Creating opportunities for open –ended play
I believe that sensory play tables can create enough of an open-ended play opportunity to support children of all abilities. Sensory play allows random objects and textures to be included with no set agenda for how they are played with. Investigation and experimentation of this nature provides the perfect environment for children to discover likes and dislikes about the types of toys, textures, sounds and play they like. Anything can be added, so if a child has a preference of toys or objects they can be incorporated too.
Objects also become different things – a plank of wood may be a bridge for a car, a slope for a truck, a drawbridge for the knight or simply a piece of wood at the play table. Allowing children the opportunity to decide creates extremely valuable insight to a childcare provider and, for the autistic child, a means to be involved on their own terms both socially and creatively.
The benefits of sensory integration therapy
Routines are quite often key to those with autism, meaning that a sensory play table may be too open- ended for a child to be comfortable with. However, there has been a great deal of research conducted on sensory integration therapy. Such research, funded by Autism Speaks and led by therapists at Philadelphia’s Jefferson School, illustrated that children who were given sensory integration therapy every day for 10 weeks required less assistance in self-care and social situations than those that didn’t:
Lead researcher of the study, Roseann Schaaf, said: “The rationale is that by changing how sensations are processed by the brain we can help children with autism make better sense of the information they receive and use it better to participate in everyday tasks.”
The concept allows the therapists to introduce a new sensory activity/sensation during a session whilst the child is engaged in something they are familiar and comfortable with.
Using sensory play tables
The use of sensory play tables in a childcare setting becomes an excellent resource for a childcare provider to observe children developing likes and dislikes; learning about cause and effect; mirroring each other’s actions; deciding to play independently or collaborate.
Sensory play can, of course, be more structured and used for individual development. Simply sorting leaf shapes for counting, lining up twigs in size order or creating shapes with stones creates sensory awareness for learning.
However a child learns, whatever their different abilities and whatever their likes and dislikes in a learning environment, sensory play will always have a place and be an important part of child development.
About the author
Lisa Lane launched Sensory Scenes in 2014 with the aim to provide themed bags of fun for play, exploring and learning. With three boys of her own, she is passionate about children being able to manipulate, explore and use their imagination. Sensory Scenes’ themed bags are perfect for individual play, sensory tray play and themed subject planning.