I have a sensory seeker, which means I have a kid who loves to move and groove. She loves to jump, swing, run, body check me, be squeezed–anything that provides input to her body, she craves. When she was a toddler, she would run around the house clutching an object in each hand and hum a very low guttural hum. It took me quite some time to realize that she did that because the vibration she could feel in her chest from that particular tone felt good to her.
Prior to getting the autism diagnosis, we were told she had a sensory processing disorder. Knowing absolutely nothing about that, I turned to the internet to research how we could help. I came across the SPD Foundation which had a great search tool to find providers. We hooked up with a wonderful OT who helped us understand the type of input that our daughter needed. She craved vestibular (the sense of movement centered in the inner ear) and proprioceptive (sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that lead to body awareness) input. While working with this OT, we rapidly understood that we were going to have to make quite a few changes in our home in order to meet her sensory needs. We had plenty of incentive, as we saw that with the right input, she looked absolutely blissful. In fact, she would even stop humming (or should it be called grumming? I mean it was a groan/hum combo after all).
Initially we were given recommendations to peruse websites dedicated to pediatric occupational and physical therapy needs. Have you ever seen those sites? I’m sure you have. They are amazing with very cool equipment that you have to rob a bank in order to buy. In less than twenty minutes the only thought in my head was “not going to happen.”
That didn’t exactly stop me. I mean, come on, I’m an autism mom- if we balked at every hurdle we’d never get anywhere in this recovery game. A little creativity sprinkled with some flexibility goes a long way. Because I’m guessing that I’m not the only one in to be in this situation, I thought I’d share some of the things we have done over time that might give you some ideas for your own homes.
The first step was really getting a grasp on what she truly craved and needed: interesting textures and funky surfaces to walk on, things to bounce on/with, pressure and, of course, movement-up, down, sideways and around.
Now, my initial thought was to construct some kind of sensory room. And we did do that. BUT we started this part when she was really young, so unless I wanted to live in that room and get absolutely nothing else accomplished in my day, I was going to have to find things that could meet sensory needs in multiple rooms in our house. Preferably things that did not require a whole bunch of moving from room to room (okay so maybe I’m a little lazy).
The main places to look for affordable things: Craig’s List, FreeCycle, Walmart, Target, Amazon and any sales at Toys R Us.
The very first thing I found cost $15 on Craig’s List. Check it out; it’s a Hedstrom Playset.
Fun, right? Slide, place to climb, little swing. Perfect sensory stimulation. Guess where we put it.
Yep, that would be my kitchen. We moved our table up against a wall, got some colorful interlocking mats on sale at Sam’s Club and and plopped this $15 wonder down in the middle of the floor. Annoying? Well, I guess that would depend on your attitude. We thought it was brilliant. I could do all of the things I needed to do in the kitchen, while she was in there with me meeting a multitude of her sensory needs. Total win-win!
The next thing I focused on was a ball pit. Every good sensory house, I mean room, needs a ball pit (or two), right? All of the ones I’d seen were quite pricey. In fact, even today when I’m talking to people they all balk at the price for a ball pit. It really doesn’t need to break the bank. We’ve done a couple over the course of the past few years.
When she was little this inflatable kiddie pool that I picked up on sale for $5 really did the trick. Add to it a $9.99 bag of balls and…well, check her out. She’s pretty comfy hanging out in it in our living room.
In fact, she liked it so much that she guarded it rather fiercely:
And we liked it so much that we got a smaller version for her bedroom.
Okay, so maybe the red one needed more balls in it. But she was pretty content with it nonetheless, and I was content to not have to drag the green one from room to room. Another win-win!
As she has grown, so has her ball pit. We wanted something bigger that would accommodate more balls and hopefully some friends. This larger ball pit was going to live in her sensory room that we put together in our basement. We chose a Jumpolene that we got on sale at Amazon. It was an immediate hit with her.
Thankfully it was also an immediate hit with friends (and a great incentive for play dates!)
Even the older friends.
See those two beauties up there? Those are Mama Mac’s kids. Even their dog got in and frolicked with them at one point. Happy kid, happy friends, happy parents who can have a conversation while their kids are all playing safely! Win-Win-Win!!
Want to be really creative? Ever wonder what to do on those off months of mHBOT?
My next step was to address bouncing! Come on, who doesn’t love to bounce?
The obvious first choice was a mini trampoline. A fair number of people give these away on FreeCycle. We opted to put it down in the sensory room with an egg crate pad underneath. The egg crate pad was a donation from a family member. It made for an interesting surface to walk on and provided a little extra padding should she slip off.
A Hippity Hop bouncer is another bouncing option. Again check FreeCycle first, but you can get them pretty inexpensively if you can’t find one there.
If balancing on the ball and bouncing is an issue, they now make a Rody (but don’t be fooled, they do tip over!)
If your child is small enough, believe it or not, a $1 punch- balloon from the local mall does the trick. They can also carry it from room to room themselves. Score! She’s four here:
One word of caution about the $1 punch-balloons. Avoid letting your child bounce on it in the store. There are little rocks on the floor that will pop it, causing some poor guy in the shoe aisle to hit the floor. Oops! Yes, that really happened. <blush>
In addition to all important bouncing…there is crashing, crawling, moving and springing on a funky surface. It turns out that it’s super easy and cheap to make your own “crash pad” “moon walk” or “foam bed” simply by filling a duvet cover with scraps of foam that you can get from almost any furniture or upholstering store for free. Just call and ask them if you can pick up a bag of their scrap foam for your child’s occupational therapy at home.
You can use scraps of any size from large to small. The only thing that matters is your preference of surfaces. The large blocks make great crash pads, while the smaller scraps make better “moon walks.”
If you can’t find an upholstering store to donate to you, you can advertise on your local FreeCycle or order it from a place like foambymail.com. I highly recommend the free route for obvious reasons!
I also learned to not overlook things that were already in the house. If you have removable couch cushions, they make a great unpredicatable surface to walk on…or a nice place to sit and bounce with a snack.
Speaking of interesting surfaces? See that gray mat under her feet? It’s actually from a pet store. Its “real” purpose is to clean the cat litter off of little paws rather than letting it get all over your house. It feels much like soft tickly grass and it was a texture that my daughter loved to stand and sit on. It was far more affordable than some of the options I saw at some expensive therapy stores.
Another interesting surface with an auditory kick is bubble wrap. Any friends who come over will love to get in on the game of jumping, dancing and hopping in piles of bubble wrap!
Ask some of your local moving companies to donate some to you. Call them and explain to them that you have a child with SPD or Autism and tell them what you need it for. Many companies will gladly donate some to you! You can also ask family members and friends to save theirs for you. If you want to buy it, Staples and any packaging store will always have some in stock.
If you want to purchase funky surfaces, you can always buy sensory stones from Amazon or look for them on Craig’s List. There are many different types. Here are a couple of examples:
Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in what you can put in the room that something simple like gluten free finger paint might be overlooked, but it provides a great deal of sensory input and fun.
I like purchasing from Discount School Supply
because their kit comes with sponges and sensory balls, and they sell those amazing large rolls of paper, too! We tear off a big piece and tape it to the floor. It truly provides lots of fun!
As your child matures you will find yourself replacing various things in your house and sensory room, so don’t forget to recycle when you can. Our green ball pit’s second ring popped, but it made a great moon sand holder later on. You can see her in the remnants of moon sand in it here. You can find Moon Sand in bulk for much less than you’ll ever find it in a store. A 5 lb bag is around $15…or you can simply go to your regular Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy some sandbox sand for even less money.
Speaking of sand. I quickly realized that these fun sand/water tables that provide so much joy in the summer time can easily be cleaned and moved inside in the wintertime.
While you are planning your own sensory filled environment for your child, don’t overlook the very simple and free, yet fun-packed activities like swinging them under the arms, riding down the hall in a laundry basket, jumping on a bed, two people grabbing four corners of a blanket and swinging the child, and playing catch with a giant therapy ball (the impact is SO much fun! You are guaranteed to get squeals of absolute delight!)
Over the past few years, our daughter’s sensory room has grown and changed right along with her as you can see.
The bucket swing was replaced by a band swing, The miniature ball pit grew to a larger one, the PlayHut and tunnels come and go (thankfully they are easily stored) The Sit-n-Spin was replaced with musical instruments. The interestingly textured egg crate that was under the trampoline has disintegrated…but many things remain
The trampoline, ball pit, bean bag and swing are constants. The opposite side of the room now holds a slide, bicycle, wagon and shelving to store puzzles, paint and craft supplies.
One thing we have noticed for sure. The more relaxed, creative and flexible we are, the more relaxed, creative and flexible she is.
Now… How do you meet your child’s sensory needs? What are some of your favorite things to do?
Happy moving and grooving!!