12 fun sensory activities for autistic children

Brenda Kimble

Children on the autism spectrum often have issues coping with everyday sensory stimuli that can make dealing with the world they live in difficult. Stimulating their senses through sensory play can help not only in this area, but to support development on social, cognitive, and numerous other levels.

Everyday experiences the rest of us take for granted can be overwhelming or feel impossible to navigate for the autistic child, making it problematic for them to further their learning in certain areas of life. Sensory play helps by strengthening neural connections. Emotional, physical, and linguistic growth can progress further as a result.

What Is Sensory Play?
Simply stated, sensory play is a fun activity that engages one or more of the five senses—touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. Sensory activities benefit all children in various areas of development—coordination, concentration, and cognition among them—but are especially beneficial to children on the autism spectrum.

Sensory play offers a natural activity for children to discover their world, which also helps to develop language skills, fine and gross motor skills, social skills, and self-control. Furthermore, sensory activities can have a calming effect on children and are particularly helpful for children with autism.

These crafts are appropriate for children of varying abilities and ages. These activities stimulate several senses, but many require adult supervision and assistance.

1. Salt Dough Crafts
Salt dough is a non-toxic and technically edible dough that can be used just like Play-Doh, although it may not be a tasty (or healthy) treat, given its salt content. It is made from just three ingredients available in virtually every household; this project is easy for any rainy day or a scheduled activity.

You can save your child’s creations by baking, or mush them back into a dough that can be saved in a plastic container for another play session. Enhance the experience by adding food coloring before mixing or let children paint their baked creations later. Choices are limited only by imagination.

2. Pudding Painting
Painting parties have never been so much fun or quite so delicious! All you need is a shower curtain liner and food coloring, and then use dyed pudding as the medium for your young artist. Add an extra shower curtain for floor protection, some choice kitchen utensils for “brushes,” and you’re set. Clean up is easy with a garden hose.

3. Cotton Round Splatter Painting
Get those extra shower curtain liners out again! You’re going to need them for this fun project that enhances gross motor skills. A little non-toxic paint, some cotton rounds, butcher paper, and a mallet are all you need for some supervised fun.

4. Empathy Bracelets
Although this activity calls for a specific book to teach empathy, parents could read any book about feelings to their child or could just talk about feelings. The concept allows the child to assign each emotion a bead color. Then the child creates a bracelet to put them all together.

5. Sensory Discovery Bottles
Hugely popular in the sensory play world, sensory discovery bottles are easy to make. There are true discovery bottles where a multitude of items are included in the mix of tumbling shiny objects, and there are slow falling bottles where beads seem nearly suspended in time as they fall in slow motion.

You can add various ingredients to make sensory bottles look like lava lamps from the 1970s or magical fairy dust worthy of any fairy princess. They are inexpensive and fun to make. Don’t forget to super glue the tops of bottles closed so that small hands won’t be tempted to open and get a bit better acquainted with their bottles’ contents.

6. Water Beads
These floral design tools feel like soft and squishy marbles. They are useful for an assortment of applications, from simple play to sensory bins, or you can freeze them for an entirely different texture.
Water beads are meant for use in flower arrangements, so, although they are not toxic, don’t let your child consume them.

7. Fidget Bracelet
Children who experience the need to move, whether from OCD, ADD, autism, anxiety, or something else, can benefit from the calming influence of something to use to channel that excess energy. Meanwhile, they do not disturb those near them with noises or an excess of motion.

This fidget bracelet is a beautiful piece of jewelry that can be upgraded with the use of quality gemstone beads. While appearing as simple jewelry, it is a fun and functional craft project that travels with a child.

8. Bead Box
This homemade version of a bead box is a therapy tool for autistic children, but it is a tool your child can participate in creating. Bead chains are great for sensory input and, with a little ingenuity, you can create your own for under $10.

9. Slime Recipes
Homemade slime is one of the hottest children’s craft projects circulating on the internet this year. There are probably as many recipes for the slime as there are children making it. Get out those shower liners again. This one will be messy, but it’s such great fun that it promises to be a win.

10. Taste-Safe Sensory Rainbow
While shaving cream is used in many sensory play projects, this finger painting features whipped cream. So, if your child has a propensity to taste his or her work, this one is completely safe, albeit sticky.

11. Sand and Water Ocean Sensory Bin
Sensory bins are so adaptable. This one brings the beach home. Kids can have fun digging in the sand and playing in the water while learning about an ocean habitat.

12. Graffiti Art for Kids
For children who might not like to get their hands full of paint or who might be frustrated by the lack of fine motor skills required to paint, this graffiti art project is perfect—and it’s just plain fun.

Washable tempera paint in spray bottles directed onto craft paper taped up outside makes for a no-fuss, easy clean-up project that the small ones will enjoy and the big ones might just want to try also.

Final Thoughts
Sensory activities immerse the body and the mind of the autistic child in stimuli he or she can use to develop sensory connections in the brain and reduce stress or anxiety. Meanwhile, all of the play time creates bonding and learning experiences, for both parent and child, in a fun and meaningful way.

Brenda Kimble is a writer and stay-at-home mother of two daughters and a son, plus their beagle named Duke! She loves blogging, crafting, and spending time with her family. She is also a strong advocate for those with special needs and writes to give a voice to the often unheard.

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