The new fidget and sensory toy craze that has taken over has been a welcomed phenomenon in our household. No longer does my daughter think it’s ‘weird’ if she brings a sensory toy to school. Gone are the days where she feels she needs to hide her comfort toys; they now make her feel like she ‘fits in’ with her peers…something she is very observant of these days. A shared common interest that she feels she has, I guess.
Children with autism often struggle with sensory issues and this can significantly impact their ability to regulate emotions and the way they experience their environment.
Their reactions to sensory stimuli are overly sensitive, meaning their brain is unable to effectively respond to the input it is receiving. This is known as sensory defensiveness or sensory aversion.
This means children with autism have an unusual craving or fixation with seeking a certain sensory need or stimulation of some sort to respond to how they are reacting within their environment.
The benefits of sensory toys
Walk into any toy store or novelty shop these days and you will be greeted with an array of different sensory toys. Bright, squishy, textured, magnetic, spinning toys that tune into the senses in a way that is safe and not overwhelming.
Before we delve too far into the world of sensory toys it might be best to address fidget toys. In my professional opinion (by professional I mean homeowner to 578 sensory toys between my girls) they are pretty much the same thing. Fidget toys are all about stimulating the senses while keeping little hands busy, they help to improve concentration. The repetitive action of playing with a fidget toy distracts from overwhelming environments allowing individuals to feel calmer. I think when most people think of sensory toys they think squishy stress balls, sensory bottles, or weighted toys. The common factor is, they both are useful to tune into the senses and bring a sense of calmness to busy heightened minds. So, for the purpose of this blog when I mention sensory toys, fidget toys are included.
Think about when you are feeling a little bit anxious or stressed. You probably have some strategies up your sleeve to calm those emotions down a little, right? It may be that you take deep breaths, take 5 minutes to reset or you may even have your own stress ball. The point is you can manage these feelings. This doesn’t come as naturally for individuals with autism. They will become overly heightened and overly responsive to any extra stimuli during these times, leading to sensory overload and challenging emotions.
Sensory toys can assist during these times. When I see my daughter is becoming worried or anxious a sensory chew toy or stress ball can sometimes help to bring those overwhelming feelings down a notch. They assist in tuning into her senses which in turn improves her neural processing systems helping her to relax, focus and calm down. In simple terms, they distract and tune into another sense.
Does it mean that you simply whip out a sensory fidget toy and like magic all is well in the world again? If only life was that simple hey?
But if it means some extra comfort then that is a huge win to me.
Here are some benefits of sensory toys.
-they can help with stimming behaviours
-help to distract
-keep hands busy
-help to recentre, focus and concentrate
-tune into sensory systems
-help with sensory aversions
-can put mind at ease
-help to develop senses in a safe way using play
-they can be relaxing
-increase muscle development
-improve fine motor skills
-they are fun
Different types of sensory toys
So, you want to add some sensory toys into your child’s ‘calm down toolbox’? Do you get a whacky track, a pop tube, a bubble pop fidget, or a stretchy spaghetti ball?
There are literally a thousand types of sensory toys, and most are accompanied by their own unique (but ever-so important) name. So, where do you start?
There is no short answer here and realistically it may take a bit of trial and error. The good thing is however is that they are relatively cheap, especially when they aren’t brought from a therapy store. For my daughter I brought a range of different types from the cheapo stores and then once I figured out the style, colours, and textures she enjoyed I got a few from ‘proper’ sensory toy shops. But really it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference.
Your child might be attracted to the bright colours, they may get relief from soft textures whereas others may seek comfort from the hard fidget type toys.
Some will be used as a calm down tool, whereas others may help to keep focused. Some may be used to help with transitions, and others may be used to distract during hientended moments. Different sensory toys can cater to different challenges...again its about trial and error to find out exactly what may or may not be helpful.
The wonderful thing is that sensory toys are so normalised now. All kids find enjoyment in them which makes children that rely on them feel more comfortable using them as there ‘calm down’ tool or anxiety comforter.