Sensory Tools for Children With Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects a child in varying degrees. Generally, these children tend to have more feeding and sensory challenges than their peers. Since I specialize in autism and feeding challenges, I thought I would highlight my favorite sensory brands and explain how to use them at mealtime. And it's perfect timing since April is National Autism Awareness Month!
Getting to the Table: Most of the families I work with have a hard time getting their kids to sit down and eat at the table. To overcome this behavior, I like to start my feeding therapy sessions with a fun and predictable routine, like an obstacle course that leads straight to the dining table. You can create your own sensory obstacle course at home using the Gonge Tactile Disks. The sight of these colorful disks arouses a child’s desire to touch, feel and explore. Which is EXACTLY what we want when a child with ASD refuses to touch, explore or eat new foods!
Gonge Tactile Disks / $100 / amep.com
Staying at the Table: I find that many of my kiddos with ASD want to know how long mealtime will last. A timer can be very helpful for these children, however most timers only come with an auditory cue (and some children with sensory issues can’t handle the loudness of that type of timer). Thankfully, Time Timer makes a visual timer that empowers those with ASD to ‘see’ time pass as the red disk on their clock disappears. This timer helps children transition to mealtime and decreases anxiety associated with staying at the table during meals.
Timer Timer Visual Timer / $40 / timetimer.com
Eating at the Table: The Happy Mat is an all-in-one placemat + plate that suctions to the table and captures mealtime mess. I find that children with ASD tend to have decreased behaviors and eat more when I use the divided sections of the Happy Mat; the sections keep their favorite foods from touching new foods! The Happy Mat also decreases mealtime behaviors (plate throwing) because of the self-seal technology, which makes mealtime less of a battle! The happy face inspires food art creativity, which makes food fun for a hesitant eater. Made from food safe silicone, it gives children with autism a sensory experience with a smile!
ezpz Happy Mat / $25 / ezpzfun.com
Sitting at the Table: Children on the autism spectrum may have difficulties sitting for long periods of time, especially for 20-30 minutes for a meal. For these kiddos, I recommend using a lightweight portable vibrating cushion from Senseez. These adorable cushions offer a gentle sensation (when they are squeezed or sat on) to soothe the body and improve sitting at the table. The increased sensory input can calm children and help them overcome their sensory feeding challenges.
Senseez Vibrating Pillow/$30 / senseez.com
Calming at the Table: Created for kids with learning and sensory challenges, Manimo’s plush animals comfort, sooth and calm children with ASD. When I use them in my feeding therapy sessions, these toys provide gentle weighted pressure that helps decrease the anxiety and stress associated with eating. The Manimo Weighted Animals are cute, huggable and relatable, making them a perfect mealtime companion!
Manimo Weighted Animals /$50 / https://manimo.ca/en/
Focusing at the Table: Children with ASD tend to have sensory overload with loud noises at sporting events, school functions, holidays (4th of July) and community outings, and it is critical to have noise-reducing headphones. Guess what? These headphones can be used at mealtime as well! The crunching, chewing, slurping, and kitchen sounds (pots and pans) can overwhelm a child and they may refuse to eat. I have many children with auditory (sensory) challenges that only eat if they have noise-reducing headphones like the EMS Earmuffs.
EMS Earmuffs for Kids / $35 / earmuffsforkids.com
Chewing at the Table: In my courses, I teach that chewing provides two functions: 1) chew to calm and 2) chew to learn how to eat different textures of food. My favorite line of silicone chewing jewelry, Chewigem, provides those with ASD a safe and age appropriate alternative to chewing on their shirts, jackets, hair or skin. Kids who have the need to chew when anxious or overstimulated (especially at mealtime) need a discreet and stylish option to help soothe them. This jewelry is perfect for calming kids and also for practicing how to safely bite and chew food!
Chewigem Jewerly / $20 / chewigemusa.com
Fidgeting at the Table: Children on the autistic spectrum tend to have the desire to fidget when they are learning. And trying new foods is a learning experience! That’s why the No Noise Fidget Box is my go-to mealtime tool when I want a sensory fidget that is quiet and inconspicuous at the table. I find that fidgets decrease anxiety and create eating success. I recommend the Fidget Club because an autistic individual handpicked these items (cool, right?), they come in their own storage container and they are easy to sanitize.
No Noise Fidget Box by Fidget Club / $40 / fidgetclub.com
To celebrate Autism Awareness Month, consider sharing this blog on your social platform to help a child that may be struggling to eat due to sensory challenges. Have an autism story to tell? Share it with us and use the hashtags #ezpzfun #autism #autismawarenessmonth.
Dawn Winkelmann (M.S, CCC-SLP) is ezpz’s Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist. She has 28 years of experience teaching parents and medical professionals how to start babies on solids safely and encourage toddlers to overcome picky eating tendencies. In addition, “Ms. Dawn” is the designer of our award-winning feeding products.