NEW YORK—School is out but learning never stops. Summertime activities can greatly advance children’s development—especially those on the autism spectrum.
The more senses an autistic spectrum child uses in a day the better, said Kim Denitto, who does occupational therapy with students at the Center for Spectrum Services, a school for children on the autism spectrum in Kingston, N.Y.
These children have trouble processing and responding to the world around them—either because it’s hard for them to screen out what’s happening around them, or because it’s hard to take in important information.
Denitto says activities that use multiple senses help calm and organize their nervous systems and form new neurological connections (actually reorganizing their brains in a healthy way).
The following are some activities parents can do at home.
Working in the garden, pushing the shopping cart, and even taking out the trash, are much more beneficial for autistic spectrum children than most people realize, Denitto said.
When children push and pull things and carry weight, it teaches them to plan and execute unfamiliar tasks from beginning to end—skills many of these children really need to work on, she said.
Household tasks, which she calls “heavy work,” can also help children build confidence and think at a higher level, because when they learn to do more things on their own, they rely less on prompts from adults.
“Many children on the autism spectrum become prompt-dependent (often due to their processing delays and our natural instinct to nurture and help our children succeed),” Denitto said in an email.
“It is important to provide opportunities for them to learn and experience success in managing and completing many of life’s everyday tasks. This sometimes takes patience and understanding on our part.”
Contact with the floor also helps children develop their senses and motor skills, Denitto said.
With her students, she uses things like “Bosu balls (half of a therapy ball), fabric tunnels, rocker boards, foam bolsters and wedges, low balance beams, [and] small plastic play equipment that children can climb and slide down,” she wrote in an email.
Denitto recommends finding activities that get children crawling, such as going through tunnels and obstacle courses, and putting materials with different textures on the floor, so children can step on them and feel the textures underfoot.
“You can buy textured stepping stones online, in toy stores, or in therapeutic catalogs, but you can also use everyday items like plastic grass mats, rubber bathtub liners, carpet squares, yoga mats, bubble wrap, anything that provides a variety of tactile input,” Denitto wrote.
A yoga DVD that’s made for children can help calm and occupy them when parents need to take care of other things.
A good way to help children transition between activities is the “MeMoves” DVD, developed by the mother of a girl with autism spectrum disorder. It guides children through very calming, rhythmical movements.
“It’s a nice way to do a little calming or a little warm-up before we introduce another activity [in class],” she said. The program also has an application version.
A couple months ago, Denitto’s school received a set of movement-geared stuffed animals, and the children have really taken to them, she said.
Called Stretchkins, these stuffed animals have very long stretchy arms and legs with bands on their paws, which children can attach to their hands and feet. Thus the animals do whatever movement the children do.
Denitto said the Stretchkins help children become more aware of their bodies in space by giving a good amount of resistance to their movements. Children find the furry creatures fun to touch, and the animals help students engage socially when they’re doing group activities.
Adding resistance gives children a greater awareness of where they are in relation to objects, other people, and their environment and can help “improve attention, strength, balance, and muscle tone,” Denitto said.
Stretchkins come with an interactive movement DVD that has exercises and dances that children can move with.
If parents want their children to work on writing over the summer—which many autistic spectrum children are not motivated to do—Denitto recommends making it a sensory experience.
You can warm up by playing with materials like play-dough, sand, rice and beans, shaving cream, or having the child rub their hands with lotion.
Hand-strengthening activities that involve pushing, pulling, shaking, or squeezing can also be helpful. You can use things like carts, scooters, wagons, and medicine balls to strengthen children’s hands and get their body ready to learn, Denitto said.
It is also important that children sit correctly when they write, with their feet flat on the ground and their body upright.
You can modify the chair height with seat cushions or wedges and place a block on the floor under their feet so they touch flat. You can also use a nonslip shelf liner to keep them from sliding off the chair, Denitto said.
Some children benefit from writing on an inclined board or a vertical surface (placing paper on a wall), which helps increase their wrist extension and gives them greater finger control.
The school has started using a program called Handwriting Without Tears, a multisensory handwriting system, which was developed by an occupational therapist. The program uses things like wet sponges, play-dough, and wooden pieces to shape letters.
For many children on the autism spectrum, working with these tactile elements is more motivating than a pencil and paper, Denitto said.