It’s a story that many parents know.
For the first six months everything about Emma Johnson’s baby girl, Krista, seemed normal. All the developmental milestones were met. At two months old, Krista smiled. At four months, she laughed at a game of peek-a-boo for the first time. At six, she was sleeping soundly through the night. However, at around 12 months things began to change. Krista seemed to regress. She no longer cuddled with Emma. She no longer made eye contact. Every day Krista retreated more and more into her own world. Her facial expressions and gestures -pointing, waving, acknowledging -became more limited. By age 2, there were tantrums and fidgeting. Krista was eventually diagnosed with autism.
Seeing the Spectrum
Autism affects 1 in 68 children and is one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the U.S. Behavioral symptoms of autism include, but aren’t limited to: social difficulties, fixated interests, obsessive and repetitive actions, and unusually intense or a dulled reactions to sensory stimulation. In the 1990’s, British psychiatrist Lorna Wing put forth the idea that autism isn’t a fixed entity, but a “spectrum” –for example, some children only meet certain levels of diagnostic criteria; some people with autism are low functioning while others are high functioning; some adults with autism can live independently, but others cannot. Still, while the definition of autism is diffuse, the behaviors and characteristics of the disorder, although varying in intensity, remain uniform.
The Overload Effect
Many people on the autism spectrum experience the overload effect. Public spaces can be overwhelming and chaotic. Sights, sounds, bright lights -it can all become too much, an anarchic disarray that causes someone with autism great distress. At the same time, something as seemingly innocuous as green broccoli touching white chicken on a dinner plate can trigger a meltdown or tantrum. Autism is unpredictable, and no two cases are the same. As Steve Shapin, the Harvard historian of science and sociology, said: “Other people’s minds are a foreign country in which we’re guests, tourists, or strangers.” Nevertheless, there’s a range of techniques for coping with the overload effect, from recognizing triggers to the calming effects of fidgets.
From hand flapping and chewing clothes to constantly rocking and swaying, many children with autism fidget. What is this repetitive behavior communicating? Children with autism fidget for several reasons: sometimes they’re overloaded with sensory stimuli; other times it’s out of boredom or pent-up frustration and an inability to communicate. Fidget toys help calm and sooth children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Self-regulation tools improve focus, concentration, and active listening. They help keep restless fingers and bodies busy and minds focused. So what types of fun fidgets are used to calm children with autism?
It’s a classic self-regulation tool. Silly Putty reduces stress, strengthens hands, and improves motor skills. Today’s silly putty is known as therapy putty, and it comes in a variety of changeable glow colors. Silly Putty is also a quiet tool -unlike, say, wooden blocks -which is another reason why it works well at home, in the classroom, or in public.
Fidgeting comes in many forms. Picking is one of them. Corks provide a safe outlet for children with autism who engage in repetitive picking, a behavior that can lead to self-harm.
Koosh Balls provide an engaging and enjoyable tactile experience. The idea is that the sensory stimulation of the Koosh will substitute for the stimulation associated with fidgeting. Furthermore, these tools are soft and yielding, so if a child gets upset and throws one, nobody gets injured.
Matchbox Cars not only help children with autism pinpoint their concentration, but provide a soothing tactile effect when the wheels are run across their arms or hands.
Also known as “chewelry,” these self-regulation tools are designed for children with autism who repetitively put things in their mouths or chew on clothing.
Puzzles assist with concentration and focus. They also keep the hands busy and quiet.
There’s no cure for autism, but there are techniques and tools to assist with the symptoms. These fun, fidget toys will help better manage an autistic child’s unregulated sensory system.