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Volume 107

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Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…

Autism Treatment 101 – Fidget Toys

When you think about autism treatment, you have to first realize that that there is no way to cure autism. But there are ways to help some of the symptoms. One of those ways is to address the sensory symptoms of autism.

Children as well as adults with autism have a lot of sensory issues. They are overly sensitive to some sensory stimuli – such as too much noise, smells, light, the feel of clothes or other things, and taste – but sometimes they crave it, too.

By definition, kids with autism and sensory issues have an unregulated sensory system. It doesn’t know how to process the information it’s taking in. It needs somehow to achieve a kind of equilibrium that the rest of us takes for granted. It does that by actively avoiding some stimuli and actively seeking out others. This can look a lot like just plain acting out, but there are actually very strong and biological reasons behind it.

So what do you do? Enter the realm of fidget toys. Believe it or not, these inexpensive toys work great for adults too!

What are fidget toys?

Fidget toys are anything that can help regulate your child’s sensory system. Fidget toys as an autism treatment have been around a long time. Sometimes they are some sort of plastic toy in your child’s hand, distracting them and their brain so that they can concentrate. Other times it’s something squishy, something that makes clickety noises, or something that requires tactile manipulation to move or put back together.

Why do fidget toys make a desirable autism treatment?

Many people ask, why fidget toys? What is it about fidget toys that makes them such a desirable autism treatment? Well, kids with autism have high amounts of anxiety. Do you know how when you have a lot of anxiety, it makes it really hard to focus? Well, it’s like that for kids with autism nearly all the time.

They have so many thoughts and feelings crowding their brain, that to have something they can touch with their hands, suck on with their mouths, or otherwise occupy part of their brain with, concentration is a lot easier.

It’s like if you can keep the part of your brain that is being bombarded with all these sensory and other sorts of messages busy and calm, then you can actually use the remaining part of your brain to think, and to work.

Some kids chew sugarless gum. Some, particularly ones who need oral stimulation, wear chewable jewelry. Some like to play with puzzles in their hands, or feel fabrics that are soft and comforting. Sometimes sitting on a ball, such as a Pilates style ball, will help, because it engages certain sensory systems in the body that allow the sensory system to reach equilibrium, or simply be calmer.

Did you ever find that if you snack on something when trying to think about an important project, you seem to be able to think better? It’s the same principle. Their needs are just much greater than ours.

There are whole websites devoted to nothing more than fidget toys. There are fidget toys of every kind imaginable. But the important thing to focus on, is what kind would most benefit your child?

What kind of fidget toy is best as an autism treatment?

You will want to have an occupational therapist do an evaluation on your child with autism to figure out which areas of their sensory system are most in need of work. But in the meantime, observe their behaviors. Are they constantly grabbing onto things, touching everything they see? Are they always putting things in their mouth? Does music seem to soothe them instantly? Follow their lead.

Most autistic kids with sensory issues respond to things in their hands that they can play with quietly. This form of autism treatment is like a sensory integration therapy. A Koosh ball, for example, is something that is easy to get a hold of, cheap, and effective.

The feeling of a Koosh ball is very soothing and distracting in a good way. Other children with autism who like to squeeze will do well with stress balls. Things that are soft, squishy or gooey can work wonders.

Small cars, a straw, clay, a rubber duck or anything in the middle section of toy stores that has all the little toys for two dollars are less are usually good. Let your child choose what works for him, if possible.

You want to be aware of your child’s developmental level, too. Some toys could fall apart and present a choking hazard. Others may be hard to manipulate given the level of fine motor skills.

Change fidget toys often

When used as an autism treatment, fidget toys can help a child with autism focus more and attend to his environment. But it is important to switch out fidget toys from day to day or week to week. Why? Your child may get bored with them and then they will not hold his attention anymore. Save the really good fidget toys for situations in which attention is extremely important, and take them away after the situation is over.

Perspective from an Adult

An adult with autism talks to us about how fidget toys help her to focus.

“I have all these thoughts going through my head. I usually have a lot of anxiety I am dealing with. I am bothered by strange sensations of body feelings and stress from the environment. But when I hold my Koosh ball all my thoughts instantly travel to that. The Koosh ball calms me because it distracts me.

I saw it in a toy store and thought that I might like it, even though I don’t usually buy toys at my age. I found a bracelet that had tin circles of sorts and got it because I liked the way it felt when it jingled in my hand. I never wear it, just hold it.

When I think back to my childhood, I was always begging my mom to buy me some sort of slime toy, Gak or whatever the latest one was. I liked the way it felt in my hands. On a home video of me around four or five years old, I am playing with piece of string. All my focus is on that string. Maybe I was unconsciously trying to do an autism treatment on myself!

I also remember that when we used to go to restaurants when I was a kid, if they had paper napkins, they would inevitably end up shredded at my placemat. I wasn’t even conscious I was doing it, but I needed something to do with my hands. At the end of the meal, I’d find this pile and not even realize how it had gotten there. Doing something with my hands helps me think. Eating also helps me think. Having something like a hard candy in my mouth focuses my thoughts. Or eating something crunchy like crackers does it as well, but doesn’t last for quite as long.”

Other Tips

  1. Swinging – Swinging is great for regulating sensory perception. You can buy hammock chairs or “therapy swings” to hang up either in your house or outside. Swinging really helps calm most kids down. It can be a very effective autism treatment. You can get fabric hammocks and hammock chairs, all sorts of things. But the cheapest and probably most effective kind are called “therapy nets” and are sold on websites specializing in autism treatment products.
  2. Bubble Wrap – If you have nothing else, bubble wrap can be a cheap and handy way to get some tactile and auditory stimulation!
  3. Preventing Toys from Being Lost – Try to clip several sensory toys onto a clip or belt for your child if they tolerate it. This way they don’t lose the fidget toys, and they are always there when he needs them!

Fidget toys can be a useful aid when dealing with sensory issues and anxiety in kids and adults with autism. They are cheap and readily accessible. Try experimenting with a few, and you may find that this is one form of autism treatment you don’t want to do without. 

If you find these tips useful and informative, then read Craig Kendall’s books which are full of additional tips from parents and professionals. Ultimately, you never know what will work for your particular situation. But having a list of tips and techniques which have proven useful for other parents is a great way to help your loved one on the autism spectrum live a fulfilling and happy life.

5 Responses to Autism Treatment 101 – Fidget Toys-107

  1. Renee Jones-Cossich says:

    I had it written in my daughter’s IEP that she was able to have fidget toys in the classroom. It helps her concentrate. I recommend that if your child does need a fidget toy that it should be written in the IEPs. This helps not only your child but also the teacher in understanding why your child needs the item.

    • Craig Kendall - Author says:

      You bring up an excellent point. When writing the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for your loved one, make sure you put, in writing, issues that you want implemented. There is something magical about putting things down in writing…they often happen!
      I suggest that all moms make a list of issues that may help their loved one…and that help their teacher better understand your loved one’s needs. Keep the list taped to the refrigerator. Over time you would be surprised at how many items…like a fidget toy…get added to the list. When it is time to review the IEP you have the list in hand and many of these items can be added to the IEP, which helps everyone.

  2. Barb says:

    I wish I had this information when my son was in grade school – he was forever being punished for “not paying attention” and fidgeting with something in his hand. He always had to have a pair of things, we thought we should have called him Noah. I still find pairs of things in the washer when I empty it.

  3. Josie says:

    My 9 year old son can eat with utensils but still prefers to use his fingers. Is there a fidget toy you’d recommend for him to use during meal time so he could focus on using the utensils instead?

    • Marianne Bernaldo says:

      Hi Josie,

      It is normal for a lot of children in general to prefer to finger feed as it is more motivating to finger feed because it’s easier. The problem with a fidget toy is if your son is busy with the fidget toys in his hands, he can’t use the utensils. Instead, I would focus on a reward system (token system). Identify a reinforcer/reward that your son can work for. Set up the reward system. For example, he can work for 5 smiley faces. Each time you see him using his utensils correctly, reward him. At the end of the meal, he will earn his reward.

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