Simply put, sensory overload is when one’s senses become overwhelmed to the point that a person is negatively impacted. Sensory overload can affect anyone but is particularly common among those with developmental disabilities like ADHD or autism that cause difficulty with filtering external input that other people might find perfectly tolerable.
Sensory overload can be a physically painful experience. As a small child, if I was outside and someone a block away was mowing their lawn, I would crouch low to the ground and clasp my hands over my ears. I used to run out of the bathroom in elementary school because of the automatic toilets, and to this day, I still have to cover my ears whenever I flush!
To an observer, it will often be obvious what is happening to a person experiencing sensory overload, but other times people may simply appear distracted or disengaged from their surroundings or may lash out in frustration instead.
For many disabled people, sensory overload becomes an everyday challenge. Let’s go over some ways of dealing with it.
The ideal scenario is preventing instances of overload from happening in the first place. This means being mindful of your surroundings and planning ahead. Know how certain stimuli affect you or others. Have an escape route in mind and a way to communicate your needs. Avoid situations you know will lead to sensory overload if you can.
But of course, life doesn’t work seamlessly and there will always be unexpected scenarios that bring on overload. Here is how you can help yourself or someone else when it arises.
1. Remove Yourself
If possible, one of the quickest ways to handle overload is to remove oneself entirely. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, excuse yourself or ask someone to help you get out of the area. If you are assisting someone else, keep an eye on their reactions and give them chances to escape their environment if it seems like they have become overloaded.
Some adults and children may not have the self-awareness or communication skills to let others know they have become overloaded, so check in with them often when you are in especially stimulating or busy environments, and remember to take breaks even if sensory overload hasn’t occurred yet.
2. Block Incoming Senses
If leaving is not an option, the next best thing is to block stimuli. Wear earplugs or headphones if sound is an issue. Cover your eyes, look to the floor or even hide under a blanket to block visual input. Plug your nose to keep smells away. Have alternative clothes in case you become irritated by tags, seams or textures.
3. Ask for Help
In some cases it may be possible to ask for help. Admittedly this can be a scary task and isn’t always feasible, but some venues may be able to accommodate your needs if you speak up! Ask for the volume to be lowered or lights to be turned down, ask to be seated away from others. This is often best done as part of prevention, but sometimes it’s necessary to ask for help on the spot, too.
4. Override External Input
When it comes to sensory overload, sometimes the most overwhelming part is experiencing excess stimuli that we have no control over. To counter this, it might help to create your own stimuli to focus on instead. (Be mindful that in public scenarios, this might not be possible if it will be disruptive for others).
Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is often a natural reaction to sensory overload. If external sound is bothersome, listen to music or make sounds of your own to focus on instead! Draw a picture or focus on a specific object to drown out other visual input. Flap your hands, wiggle your toes, or stomp your feet to express control over how your body feels. Use a weighted blanket to control proprioceptive input.
Basic Sensory Overload Kit
Here is a list of some good items to keep on hand for situations when sensory overload may be expected. Because different things work for different people, make sure to customize your own kit with what works for you based on the situation and circumstances.
Ear protection (headphones, earplugs)
Eye protection (sunglasses, hats, eye masks)
Hand fidgets (tangles, stress balls, marble mazes, etc.)
Chewable fidgets (handheld or wearable “chewelry”)
By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Kids are finishing up the school year, you are still going to work/working remotely, running your home, and keeping your kids entertained during their summer! All this change can be very disorienting and stressful for everyone. I wanted to put together a list of some suggestions that are “occupational therapist-approved” to help you navigate staying sane, keeping a good routine, carving out “family time”, and receiving therapy services remotely while being stuck inside the house!
Probably the largest disruption to all of us at this time is that all of our daily routines are completely changed! Daily routines help provide structure to our lives, whether you are a child or an adult. Research by Ruth Segal, OTD and Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at New York University, reports that daily routines give families as sense of identity, organization, and provide socialization opportunities (Segal, 2004). Our kids are used to having a predictable day involving school, extra curriculars, play dates, and therapy appointments which help them organize their days and have meaningful interactions with family and friends. With this change to e-learning and staying home, it’s completely understandable that kids may feel stressed, anxious, and aimless without their routines. This stress may be more exacerbated for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with ASD can be heavily reliant upon predictability and routine, which have been thrown off because of the Coronavirus. For both neurotypical and children with ASD alike, using visual schedules, timers, and social stories may be good techniques to help your child cope with a new routine.
Visual schedules can be as complex or simple as you need; they can be simple drawings on a piece of paper, an excel spreadsheet, or printed words/pictures from an online generator. For some of my clients, they are comforted and reassured when I draw 3 pictures of activities we are going to do in OT.
Honestly, whatever works for your kid and helps them feel organized is correct. Whatever way you decide to create a visual schedule, it’s important to build in both structured and unstructured time for your children. They should have time built in for their academic work for school as well as a few hours for play time that is completely unstructured. Some kids may want to put a sticker next to an activity they completed, erase it on the whiteboard, cross it out, or just put a checkmark next to it. The sky’s the limit! Below are some examples of visual schedules and who it may be appropriate for:
(Written schedule with times, appropriate for older elementary children who can tell time)
(visual picture or words, as they are able to read. You can draw your own pictures or just print some off for younger children who cannot read.)
In conjunction with visual schedules, it can be helpful to utilize timers (sandtimers, timer on the microwave, on your iPhone, etc.) to help your children keep organized. The timer you use will have to be dependent upon your own child’s level of development as well as what they personally need to feel supported. Apps you can use:
Children’s Countdown App:Great, free time app on smart phones that shows a picture countdown on the screen. The coundtown clock can be set for any amount of time and children do not need to understand how to tell time or have understanding of numbers to comprehend it.
Timed It! App: App for older children in which you can put in personalized tasks in minute increments and the app will help the child count down until they need to move on to the next task.
Timer on smart phone: just about all smart phones have a “clock” application in which there are capabilities for setting a timer. This would be good for older children who have a better sense of what an hour, minute, second is. Although, some younger children will understand the concept that they are only “all done” when the timer makes a sound.
For some children with ASD, social stories are a good way to help explain why their routine has changed or what the “story” of their day. Social stories are third person stories in which the child is the main character and different themes can be explored. Ask an Occupational or Speech therapists for help creating a social story, if needed.
In this uncertain time, it’s important to have some outlets for both you and your children to decompress and still have fun together. Building in sensory activities into your daily routine will help your child remain calm and regulated throughout the day.
Physical Activities and Heavy Work
Taking movement breaks throughout your day will help both you and your child stay sane while you are cooped up at the house. Occupational therapists often discuss the benefits of heavy work and how this push, pull, or carry input (or proprioceptive input) to the muscles and joints has a regulating and calming affect. There are a multitude of heavy work activities you can do indoors. Such as:
Build a pillow fort with blankets, pillows & stuffed animals
Pull siblings on the hardwood floor while they are sitting or laying on a blanket
Do animal walk races across the room (bear walk, frog hop, crab walk, etc. Make up your own silly walk!)
Jumping Jacks or jump on a trampoline
Pull siblings in the wagon around the block
Have a wall push-up competition and find out who is the strongest in your house
Play towel tug-of-war
Plant flowers in the backyard or help with yard work (using little shovel, pull weeds, dig in the dirt)
My helpful tip to parents is, if the activity includes pushing, pulling, or carrying something; that’s heavy work! Get creative and come up with your own ideas!
Family Game Night/Nightly Mealtime Tradition
Keeping special family routines will be important to make sure kids feel safe and supported when everyone is kind of stressed. Set aside time in your routine where you can all sit down and have a meal together with the television off. A family tradition at my house growing up was to play “Pot Boils Over” where one member of the family starts a silly story and after a few sentences says “pot boils over” and “passes” the story-telling to another family member to add on as they please. It’s a simple game that gets all family members involved, laughing, and thinking creatively.
Another mealtime routine I have heard of, is going around and saying one thing each family member is thankful for, what the best part of their day was, share a good joke, etc. This is also a great time for families to all sit down together and have game nights. You are going to be all home together, why not build some special memories and encourage social learning. Here are a few favorite games that can be played with multiple people, for different ages:
Games for younger children: Shoots and Ladders, Simon Says, Twister (help them with right and left), Follow the Leader, Go fish, Memory (match pictures by turning over cards), Jenga, Kerplunk
Games for Older children: Twister, Uno (each color you play can correspond to a fun activity such as “Make up your Own Dance Move” or “Do 2 Pushups”), Clue, Scrabble and Scrabble Junior, Telestrations (like telephone, but with drawing pictures), Apples to Apples, do a 200+ piece puzzle as a family, Guess Who?
I am personally feeling inundated by COVID-19 news and I can get overwhelmed quickly, so I can imagine you and your children are feeling the same. I think it’s healthy to be aware of the evolving situation and current precautions, however it’s beneficial to “unplug” every once and a while when you are at home with your kids. Your children are very perceptive and can pick up on your stress and anxiety as they read your non-verbal cues and affect. Young children especially need their parents to “co regulate,” meaning they read your affect, mood, facial expressions and adjust their own regulation accordingly. If you exude a calm, cool, collected attitude when they are anxious, this will help them calm down and feel secure.
Therefore it’s important to turn off the news at some point and focus on having quality and uninterrupted play time with your kids. Do finger painting, make a fort out of blankets, play board games, read stories by flashlight, sit together and do a puzzle or color! Even just being available to your children, not distracted by technology or work, can be extremely beneficial to your kids.
As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, the CDC also recommends to take time to pause and breath during stress. Notice How you Feel. Take Breaks. Make time to sleep and exercise. Reach out and stay connected. Seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed or feeling unsafe. If you or your child needs help, our social work team can help.
COVID-19 does not have to stop your child’s progress toward their goals! Your child can still receive therapy services remotely via tele-therapy. Tele-therapy is a unique service delivery method in which your friendly Easterseals therapist will arrange a time and will send you a link via the Microsoft Teams app. From there, you just click on the link at your pre-arranged appointment time and you can have a video call with your therapist. Your therapist can then work on therapy goals with your child with you, the parent, being the therapist’s “hands” in the session. An occupational therapist will help coach you through appropriate handling techniques, sensory strategies, exercises, fine motor activities, feeding session and more remotely!
All our therapists adopted this technology so your child will continually receive services with minimal interruption. It is our hope to keep providing exceptional therapy services to all of our clients during this difficult time. If you have any questions or concerns regarding tele-therapy, please reach out to one of your therapists or contact us at 630.620.4433.
Also stay tuned to our blog for more resources and tips from our therapists on helping families cope with increased time at home during COVID especially during the summer.
Segal, R. (2004). Family routines and rituals: A context for occupational therapy interventions. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 499–508.
By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
When a child with sensory processing disorder goes on vacation, it may be difficult for their bodies to go into that “relax and restore” mode. Children with sensory processing disorders are constantly “battling” with their environment in many of the following ways:
Every sound is too loud and hurts their ears
Smells are abrasive and can cause them to gag or vomit
New tactile sensations send them into a panic
Changes in their normal routine can make them extremely anxious
New sights and movement in their environment can startle them
The following are some tips that may help support a child with sensory issues during a summer vacation so they may have a relaxing experience.
Some children may also just benefit from going over what to expect on their vacation. You can help them prepare by saying, “We are going to the airport and this is what to expect…” or “We will be on vacation for 4 days. During those days we can do these activities…”
Long Car Rides
Children that are constantly on the move may find it extremely difficult to sit still during long car rides to their vacation destination. Often times kids who are always “on the go” benefit from heavy work activities that involve pushing, pulling, and carrying. These activities give input to the joints and muscles which can be very regulating. Here are a few heavy work ideas specifically for car rides:
Squigs on the windows: I suggest this for children who need something to keep their hands busy with push and pull component to get heavy work. These small plastic suction cups stick perfectly to car windows and to each other. Children can build and make a picture with them on the windows
Pop Tubes: These toys also provide an opportunity for children to push and pull when you are cooped up in the car.
Animal walk breaks at rest stops: Just as you need to get out and stretch your legs during a long ride, your child with sensory difficulties will need this break too! At rest stops, take advantage of the opportunity to move by doing silly activities that promote heavy work: walking like a bear, jumping like a kangaroo, playing on a playground if the rest stop has one.
What to Pack
Here’s a list of sensory supports that may help your child while you are on vacation. Make sure to consult your occupational therapist about which items may be most beneficial for your child.
Noise cancelling headphones: Some children benefit from wearing headphones if they are easily overwhelmed by the loud noises of crowds. Noise canceling headphones can range anywhere from $20 to upwards of $200. These might be handy for kids that would get overwhelmed by crowds, traveling on an airplane, or seeing a firework show on the 4th of July.
Comfort item: Bringing a stuffed animal or blanket that your child finds soothing may be beneficial for when they become anxious or overwhelmed while on vacation. You could even add soothing aromatherapy scents such as vanilla, lavender, or chamomile to these comfort items for an extra sensory “treat.” (Always make sure your child tolerates and likes the scent prior to adding it to their comfort item. If the smell is too bothersome to them, they may not want to be around it anymore!)
Weighted blanket or stuffed animal: Some children with sensory processing difficulties find compression comforting. A weighted blanket or stuffed animal may provide some calming input and tell their body to relax. Weighted items are now available at most stores or online. Click here to read more about the benefits of weighted blankets.
Fidgets: These are small items that kids can fiddle with in their hands to keep them busy and focused when they may feel overwhelmed. Fidgets can be bracelets, putty, pop tubes, etc.
Identification bracelets: Sometimes when a child is overwhelmed, they may run away from the group. Because of this, it may be a good idea to make a bracelet with your phone number on it so that you can be reached in case of an emergency. Options include beads with numbers on them, temporary tattoos that you can specially order with your phone number on it. There are even cute “Disney-themed” buttons and tattoos with emergency contact information that you can specially order. Here are some examples of number bracelets and temporary tattoos or you can design your own ID bracelet.
The Benefit of Breaks
Children are working very hard to stay regulated and calm when they are being bombarded with all this new sensory input that comes with a vacation. They may just need a little break. It is absolutely okay to take some time in your hotel room or find a quiet spot for your child to regroup. Sometimes just a quiet room with a preferred toy or sensory tool is just the break that your child needs in order to enjoy the rest of their vacation.
You can help your child create a “calm down corner” in your hotel room or wherever you are staying. This spot does not need to be complicated – it can be a little corner of the room with pillows, blankets, and some of the items previously listed in “What to Pack.”
This can be their special area in which they can retreat to take a break if they become overwhelmed and enjoy a moment away from whatever input is overwhelming them.
This is not a punitive space to send them to when they are behaving badly or being uncooperative. This is a calm space that you can offer them a break in or they can elect to go to when needed. Just as you may go sit by the pool after a busy day on vacation to relax and recharge, your child with sensory processing difficulties may need their own unique space to do the same.
Children with sensory processing difficulties can have meltdowns when they get too overwhelmed by the sensory input in their surroundings and/or if they become too fatigued. As well prepared as you may be, you can’t anticipate or prepare for every meltdown.
If your child has a meltdown while on vacation, first try to figure out what elicited the meltdown and remove them from the input that is too overwhelming for them. It may be helpful to go through all 5 senses: Was there a smell, sound, touch, sight, taste that they experienced that caused them to react? Were they in a loud, busy crowd for too long? Did the plan change too suddenly and without warning?
Once you have removed them from whatever caused the meltdown (as best as you can), give them input to help calm them down. For some children, they like compression from big hugs or weighted blankets. Other children need to put on their noise cancelling headphones and have some quiet time.
Sometimes children with sensory processing difficulties can meltdown because they are so tired from holding themselves together for so long in a new environment. As a clinician, I have an understanding of the experience, and know it must be exhausting to be bothered by what most people consider “normal” input, such as the sounds of people talking, the feel of your clothes on your body, or the smell of the pool on vacation.
It’s important for parents to understand that their child with a sensory processing disorder is expending a lot of energy processing input from their surroundings. They may need more patience and understanding when they are having a tough time with changes outside their normal routine. It may be helpful for parents to help children label when they are becoming agitated, by saying “It looks like you are not comfortable right now, can we take a break?”
Summer vacation should be an opportunity for everyone in your family to rest and recharge. If you need help brainstorming what activities/preparations would be best for your child this summer, consult your occupational therapist for more insight into your child’s unique sensory needs.
By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
Summer vacation is in full swing, along with all the stress and planning that parents feel as they try to make a great relaxing vacation for their whole family. For parents of children with disabilities, these feelings can be very overwhelming as they have to take into account how to travel efficiently and safely while accommodating their child’s needs.
To make your trips a little easier, I’ve compiled a list of resources about air travel, cruises, and US-based destinations that are perfect for a family with a child with disabilities.
TSA Cares is a national program through the Department of Homeland Security that offers one-on-one assistance navigating the airport and security for people with disabilities. Services include escort by a Passenger Support Specialist who can meet you at a specific point in a chosen airport, help with baggage through security, assist in security checks, and just be another support system navigating a chaotic environment such as an airport.
Open Taxis is a new wheelchair accessible taxi service in Chicago. It is open 24/7, so it is perfect for quick taxi rides to the airport without parking your own accessible vehicle at the airport for the entirety of your trip. You can call to prearrange a trip or call the day of the trip. You can schedule a ride by calling 855-928-1010.
Travelers Aid Chicagois a service in Chicago O’Hare that provides support and protection for “vulnerable at-risk travelers who need guidance, support, or advocacy” as well as crisis intervention for passengers with cognitive or developmental disabilities. Information desks are located in terminals throughout O’Hare.
Travelers Aid Chicago provides the option to schedule an Airport Practice Experience. You can take a “practice run” through O’Hare airport including going through security and the terminals to help children know what to expect on the actual travel day. They even have visuals to provide to families so that the child can have their own visual schedule of their trip to O’Hare.
I would especially recommend this for a child who may have Autism and/or an Anxiety disorder and has not experienced anything like flying before.
Autism on the Sea is an international organization that creates cruise experiences for children and adults with Autism, Down Syndrome, Tourrette Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and more. These experiences are currently available on well-known cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruises, Carnival Cruises, and Disney Cruises.
With this service, cruise members who are experienced and background checked can accompany you on the cruise and adapt activities in order to fit the special needs of your family. This organization will also collaborate with you in order to contact cruise lines to adapt your vacation to fit the dietary, physical, mental, and emotional needs of your child.
They even provide images of common used “cruise ship words” to be used as part of a child’s Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) so that you can create a social story to prep your child for their trip.
Disney Cruises offers many special services for passengers with special needs, such as accessible suites, access to medical equipment, sharps containers, and a variety of other accommodations. Disney Cruises also offer American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for on-board entertainment and shows. Please contact Disney Cruises 60 days before your cruise to arrange accommodations.
As Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley is based in the western suburbs of Chicago, here are some tips for exploring the Windy City!
The Chicago Children’s Museum Play for All program offers free admission for the first 250 visitors with disabilities the second Saturday every month from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. to experience exhibits via a private tour. You must pre-register in order to get this special offer. The museum also has sound reducing headphones, pictures for a visual schedule, and lap trays for wheelchairs so that children with disabilities can experience the museum.
Calm Waters at the Shedd Aquarium offers extended hours on selected days especially for children with disabilities. They have specially designed shows with novel sensory experiences, a “quiet room” for sensory breaks, and an app in which there is information about noise levels in different parts of the Aquarium to help you plan your trip.
Click here or call 312-939-2438 for additional information on Calm Waters at the Shedd Aquarium!
Sensory Saturday at the Field Museum:The Field Museum opens early on select Saturdays in which children with disabilities or sensory processing issues can enjoy the field museum without loud crowds as well as access to hands on experiences to learn through tactile play and exploration.
Click here or email to learn more about Sensory Saturdays at the Field Museum!
It really is the happiest place on earth. Disney World offers numerous services and accommodations for children with special needs at each of Disney’s parks.
Access to Break Areas for children who need a break from the sensory overload of Disney. You can ask any cast member to help you locate a break area.
Sensory Guides for each park’s ridesand shows that have strobe lights, scents pumped in, loud noises, have a lot of unpredictability, bumps, go fast, etc. It even lists what type of restraint is used in each ride for safety as well as how long each ride is. This guide can help families of children with special needs decide which attractions would be most enjoyable for their child. If you are planning to go to Disney, it may be helpful to show this list to your Occupational Therapist, as they can help you figure out which rides will best suit your child’s unique sensory system.
Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas is an amusement and waterpark that has 25 “ultra-accessible” attractions. Opened in 2010 by parents of a daughter with physical and cognitive disabilities, Morgan’s Wonderland is the world’s first theme park designed specifically for children with special needs. This unique theme park has a variety of amazing attractions such as the Sensory Village (which is a replica small town for children to engage in imaginative play), wheelchair swings, a large sand box, a musical playground, and more!
Morgan’s Inspiration Island is a waterpark addition to Morgan’s wonderland that provides an opportunity for guests with limited mobility to experience the fun of a waterpark. They have access to waterproof chairs and compressed air operated power wheelchairs so that all children can play in the water without having to worry about ruin their personal power wheelchairs.
There are also hotels that are partnered with the amusement and water park that offer discounts and accommodations to make the entirety of your trip accessible. Morgan’s Inspiration Island was listed as one of TIME Magazines 2018 “World’s Greatest Places.” Best of all? Admission for guests with disabilities is free.
The National Park Service has a list of the most wheelchair accessible hiking trails so that guests with limited mobility don’t have to miss out on the beauty of our national parks. There are wheelchair accessible hiking paths at the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, and Zion National Parks.
Whether you decide to go on a cruise, roadtrip, or fly somewhere this summer, bring up your vacation plans with your child’s therapists for further accessibility tips and sensory strategies that can make your trip more enjoyable for everyone involved. Happy travels!
According to the Center of Disease Control, developmental disabilities affect 1 in 7 kids in the U.S. and 1 out of 9 children under the age of 18 receive special education services. Explaining a disability to children can be difficult for many reasons. The children’s books below each have a unique way of illustrating what really matters. These books are a great addition to any home, school, library, or waiting room.
With inspiring messages and an emphasis on strengths, they help all children understand kids with different needs. These powerful messages share stories and celebrate victories of all kids in spite of a range of different disabilities. If you are struggling to find a way to start a conversation with a child or a child’s sibling, friend, classmates, or family, these are a great way to start conversations about disability and inclusion!
Books about kids with physical disabilities:
Hip, Hop, Hooray for Brooklynn Bunny: This book is great for encouraging children to persist in achieving long-term goals and to cooperate with wearing an orthopedic brace. This book focuses on the whole child working toward a positive outcome over time. Whether it’s jumping rope, or wearing a brace, the message of this book is to keep trying.
Danny and the Merry-Go-Round: One day while watching kids play and ride a carousel, Danny becomes frustrated by his inability to participate. It’s not easy to join in because he is living with cerebral palsy. Luckily, a little girl befriends him and they embark on an adventure. It’s a touching story, made more powerful for its way of showing children with disabilities that they are valuable people.
Meet ClaraBelle Blue (The ClaraBelle Series): Written by a mother of a child with cerebral palsy, this book celebrates differences by illustrating how much we all share in common. ClaraBelle’s favorite line is “I’m ClaraBelle Blue and I’m just like YOU!”
My Belly Has Two Buttons: This book was written for children who use feeding tubes, and the main character is excited to show and teach everyone he knows about it.
Ben’s Adventures: This series was written by a parent with a son with cerebral palsy. Ben shows that despite his disability, he can dream, he can play, and he can interact and have meaningful experiences.
Books about kids with autism:
Looking After Louis: The
story of Louis, a boy with autism in a general education class, is told from
the perspective of one particular classmate. This is a great book to explain to
young children how autism can affect behavior and promotes understanding of
Andy and His Yellow Frisbee: When a girl notices that Andy spends most of his recess
spinning a frisbee by himself, she befriends him despite his trouble
connecting with others. It’s a great story, told through the shoes of Andy’s
older sister, providing a great perspective on Autism that even the youngest
kids can understand.
Ian’s Walk: Ian is nonverbal.
His older sister Tara takes him on a walk and is embarrassed that he does
things out of the ordinary including staring at the ceiling fan in the
drugstore and putting his nose against the bricks by the post office. But when he wanders off on his own, she must try to see the
world through his eyes in order to find him.
Books with a focus on inclusion and coping
with a disability:
We’re All Wonders: This story shows how one child copes with his own differences, and other’s reactions to them. The reader will find comfort in Auggie’s imaginative tactics and his positivity about being able to change the way others see him.
Susan Laughs: This book celebrates the similarities and differences between children with and without disabilities, and encourages acceptance and tolerance of differences. It’s not until the end of the book that Willis reveals Susan uses a wheelchair. It’s a simple, yet powerful, way to show how people aren’t defined by the barriers they face.
My Sister, Alecia May: This book is written from the perspective of a younger sister of a child with Down Syndrome. Although Alecia May can be hard to be around, she is a lot like other 6-year-olds. Rachel appreciates the unique qualities of her sister and learns to stand up for her when others tease her. A great book about inclusion!
Books about kids with a learning disability,
anxieties/worries, and more:
Hudson Hates School: This book is a useful introduction to dyslexia for children. It reassures children that dyslexia should not be a barrier to success if it is properly recognized and managed.
Eagle Eyes: This book focuses on a child who has ADD/ADHD and learning difficulties. It acknowledges the difficulties that Ben experiences at home and school because he has trouble controlling how he moves and thinks. The hallmarks of ADHD are discussed as well as ways to cope with them.
When My Worries Get Too Big: This is a great book that makes it easy for kids who struggle with anxieties to not feel so alone. The included stories are fun, engaging, and filled with encouragement to help kids come up with their own calming methods when anxiety issues arise.
I’m Not Weird, I Have Sensory Processing Disorder: If you have a child that struggles with sensory processing disorder (SPD), this book will help your child relate to the main character as she describes what it is like for her each and every day. This is a great resource to explain to others what it feels like living with sensory issues that affect them constantly throughout the day.
Whole Body Listening Larry at School: This is an excellent book to teach the concept of whole body listening and following directions. The story begins with two new students attending school who have trouble listening and following along with the class schedule, social cues, etc. Larry helps them by teaching them how to listen with “their whole body”.
Books geared towards siblings:
Sara’s Secret: This book explains the story of a grade school-aged child that has a brother with a severe disability. The main character struggles with not wanting her classmates at her new school to find out about her brother in fear of being teased. It is a beautiful message of acceptance and inclusion as the main character delves into her emotions and realizes the bond between she and her brother despite his difficulties, which is not any secret to hide.
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red: A great resource for those who are awaiting the arrival of a new baby brother/sister who has a disability (this book specifically geared towards Down Syndrome). It also has a great message that with help and patience, their sibling will be able to overcome any obstacle.
Leah’s Voice: Parents and educators can use this book as a great resource for teaching siblings, friends, and classmates about autism, inclusion, and acceptance. Although the focus is on a sibling with autism, its important message on the acceptance of differences and treating everyone with kindness is for all children.
Views from Our Shoes: This book includes numerous stories of siblings that share their experiences as the brother or sister of someone with a disability with a wide range of various difficulties. Their personal stories introduce young siblings to others like them and allow them to compare experiences.
By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
Weighted blankets have become very popular in the past year,
not only for children with sensory processing difficulties and Autism, but also
with “neurotypical” adults. It’s hard to go online or browse the aisles of Walmart
without seeing ads for weighted blankets touting an improved night’s sleep or
improved mood. So what exactly is the hype around weighted blankets and why do
they help children with Autism or other sensory processing issues?
What are weighted
Weighted blankets are usually big plush blankets filled with
some sort of pellet to make it heavier (depending on what type of blanket you
buy or make, they are usually filled with plastic, sand, steel shot beads,
plastic poly pellets, micro-beads, etc.)
They can range in weight from a couple pounds to about 20
pounds and can be made out of just about any type of fabric imaginable! Weighted blankets can be worn on the lap to
help a fidgety child calm down in order to sit at the table for a meal with
family, help ease anxiety during a car ride, or help lull a child to sleep.
Weighted blankets for children should not exceed 10% of their body weight for safety (weighted
blankets should be a comfortable compression, not so heavy that they cannot be
easily taken off by a child). These blankets are used for calming input to help
a child “slow their body down,” not to be so heavy as to inhibit movement.
What’s the theory
behind weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets can have a calming effect when worn over
the body for the same reason that your child would seek a big hug when they are
upset. This weight provides deep tactile input to the skin, joints, and muscles
that tells your child’s brain to relax.
According to the American Sleep Association, deep tactile input provided from weighted blankets tells our central nervous system to switch from our “fight or flight” sympathetic state of being anxious and panicky to our “rest and recharge” parasympathetic state where our heart rates slow and we are able to calm ourselves down. Deep tactile input causes the body to release serotonin in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that creates a sense of calm and well-being.
For children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or sensory processing difficulties, it is really hard to get their bodies to move from this “fight or flight” to “rest and recharge” state on their own. Occupational Therapists are trained in identifying strategies to help the central nervous system to calm through the use of movement, tactile, olfactory, visual, auditory, and proprioceptive input. Weighted blankets can be an effective modality to help accomplish this.
Store Bought vs. Homemade
There are a plethora of store-bought options for weighted
blankets that range from relatively cheap to extremely pricey. Whether you
purchase or make your weighted blanket should be based upon how much time you
have available as well how much you want to spend. Both store bought or
homemade options can have the same calming effect.
Regardless, like any other blanket, it should be washed
occasionally. Make sure that the materials you purchase are conducive to being
either machine or hand washed without destroying the blanket. For example, your
blanket is filled with sand or rice, it would be a good idea to purchase a
cover to go over the blanket so that it may be removed and washed.
Where to Shop
There are so many options for weighted blankets online and
in store. Here’s a list of a couple choices that I have suggested to families
in the past (ask your Occupational Therapist which companies they prefer and
have had good experiences with).
Amazon: Amazon has a large selection of blankets that range from $50-$100. Be sure to check individual seller’s policies on returns and weight specifications.
Fun and Function: This therapy product website has weighted comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and lap pads with fun designs and textures that are kid-friendly.
Support groups: Parent support groups on Facebook often either personally know someone who makes great blankets or knows what companies make the best ones for a fair price. (For clients at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, ask your Occupational Therapist about weighted blankets created by Easterseals families that are low to no cost!)
How to Make Homemade Weighted Blankets
Because I am always a fan of saving a few bucks and getting
a little crafty, I usually tell my client’s families to try making a weighted
blanket on their own. If a family is up for it, I recommend buying a duvet
cover and going to a craft store such as Joann Fabrics or Michaels to purchase
filler material. The duvet can then be sown shut and you can place another
cover on top of the filled duvet so that the outer layer can be easily washed.
Making your own also lends itself to making a blanket that would exactly fit your child’s interests. You can purchase durable, washable fabrics with your child’s favorite characters on it. There are also online instructions for how to make your own blanket, like this one from Quality Plastic Pellets. Make sure to remember the rule for the weight of the blanket… make sure it weighs at most 10% of the child’s body weight.
Aromatherapy and Weighted Blankets
For an extra calming sensory experience, you can even add aromatherapy scents to your weighted blanket. Of course, make sure that the child enjoys the scent and is not bothered by this olfactory input prior to adding it to the blanket. Scents such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, and bergamot can have a calming effect and can help with inducing sleep. Aromatherapy oils can be purchased at your local drug store. Click here to read more about adding aromatherapy to weighted blankets.
Whether you want to buy or make your own, weighted materials can be trialed in therapy sessions to see if the child has a positive, calming response with its use. Your Occupational Therapist will collaborate with you to consider what textures your child can tolerate in fabrics, if the sound of the material inside the blanket could be irritating, and when it would be most beneficial for the child to use the blanket.
Choosing a weighted blanket can be both an art and a science; if you are interested in trialing a weighted blanket for your child, feel free to ask your child’s Occupational Therapist about it!
Did you know October was National Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) month? AAC is a specialized area of clinical services. Here at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, we are very lucky to have several therapists who specialize in helping individuals find their voice through AAC. We have both Occupational Therapists (OT) and Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) involved in a multidisciplinary team evaluation to determine the best strategies and/or communication systems to help a child learn to communicate.
As an OT, I first became interested in AAC when I was working with a little boy with autism who received a high tech speech output device. It was amazing to see how having his new voice provided so many new opportunities for him. It helped with his overall regulation as he now had a system to share his wants, desires, and needs.
AAC looks different from person to person and varies from low tech options, light/mid tech and high tech systems. If you think your child might benefit from AAC, our team evaluative approach may be helpful. Below is more information on what each team member does to best help your child.
Many parents often have questions about whether or not a device will hinder their children’s ability to speak. This is absolutely not the case. Research demonstrates that AAC does not keep children from learning to speak. In fact, users will make gains in language AND speech because AAC helps a child connect with others, produce successful communication, and provides consistent speech models. The child I described above, went on to learn a ton of new words after he got his device! When we begin to use AAC with toddlers, it doesn’t mean we believe they are never going to talk; instead, it often means, we believe they need a way to have a meaningful connection to others through a common language which helps serve as a bridge to spoken language.
Do try and introduce forms of AAC early. Using AAC can be very helpful for a toddler who is beginning to make gestures, eye contact or sounds to communicate messages, but isn’t yet using spoken language. Often these toddlers are frustrated they can’t communicate certain thoughts and messages. Once they start to see and learn the power of communication through signs, pictures, or more formal AAC apps/devices, they begin to feel a little less frustrated.
3. Model, model, model. When using any type of AAC, we can never model enough. This means that everyone in a child’s life should use AAC too! As with all language learning, AAC is learned because those around the child speak the same language. If you think about it, early communication development (between birth – 12 months) is only modeling – caregivers communicating without any expectation while being connected with their baby using a common language. I love it when my clients bring their devices to therapy. If your child is already receiving therapy services, ask the therapist to use your child’s communication system during sessions to connect and engage with your child. When using AAC, continue to use verbal speech to model and help children understand the pictorial representation of language and develop the words.
4. When you schedule an evaluation, you will see both an occupational therapist and a speech therapist trained in AAC. Both therapists are knowledgeable in a variety of access methods such as hand access, switch scanning, and eye gaze technology. The occupational therapist will specifically look at:
the child’s overall posture and strength to allow for upper extremity (or any other extremity) use while accessing the communication system
determine optimal positioning of both the child and the device to ensure the most efficient method of access
the child’s vision, auditory, and sensory processing needs
the child’s visual and/or auditory scanning ability
the child’s visual/auditory tolerance
any adaptations to engage different sensory systems, as well as monitor for sensory overload and/or assist in sensory regulation for device access.
The speech therapist is extremely knowledgeable in the vast array of AAC communication systems and AAC strategies available. They will help determine the communication system and language page best suited to bridge the gap between the child’s receptive and expressive communication skills. The evaluations are done in a play based manner to help the child feel comfortable. And play is how children learn!
Here at Easterseals we offer a team approach for evaluating children for AAC needs. For children that could additionally benefit from AAC, we will see them for co-treats to help expand their language within play based therapy sessions.
When the child’s specific goal is to assist in overall regulation and play to support device access, then a co-treat can be extremely valuable between Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy. OTs are trained in setting up sensory rich environments to support regulation and drive play. These activities can be very motivating for your child’s communication. There are endless opportunities to model language depending on your child’s unique development.
To learn more about Assistive Technology at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, click here.
Every April 2, in conjunction with the international autism community, Autism Speaks spreads awareness of autism spectrum disorder with its Light It Up Blue Campaign. Thousands of organizations around the world, such as Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley participate in this event to spread education, resources, and awareness for greater understanding and acceptance of Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopment disorder. It refers to a wide range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and non-verbal communication. The Term “spectrum”
reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes.
People with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and might not want change in their daily activities. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life.
Children or adults with ASD might:
not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying overhead)
not look at objects when another person points at them
have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
avoid eye contact and want to be alone
have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds
be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them
repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language
have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to feed a doll)
repeat actions over and over again
have trouble adapting when a routine changes
have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
Autism Diagnostic Clinic at Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley
Early detection and intervention is the best way to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental disabilities gain greater independence. If you are concerned about your child’s development inquire about our medical diagnostic and autism diagnostic clinics.
Additional Services at Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley for Children & Young Adults with Autism Include:
Feel the sand between your toes with these fun tactile activities.
Sand Slime. It’s ooey, it’s gooey…and sandy? Recipe: Here
Drawing letters in the sand, a perfect pairing of visual motor and tactile. Recipe here.
Kinetic Sand…semi sticky, and super moldable sand. Get it here.
Good old sand box play…because nothing beats the classic, pale and shovel.
For more summer sensory ideas, or ways to adapt these activities to your child’s needs and goals, ask your occupational therapist at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley. For more information about occupational therapy visit our website.
Walking on the balls of the feet or “toe-walking”, is quite common in children just learning to walk. The good news is that many children out-grow it within a few months of walking. However, if your child is toe-walking beyond the age of 2, it is worth talking to your pediatrician about it, as there may be an underlying cause associated with this.
There are a few main reasons why children toe-walk:
Shortened Achilles tendon
A shortened Achilles tendon (bottom part of the calf) can cause less flexibility at the ankle, making it more difficult for a child to get his heel down when walking. When this is the case, physical therapy can help stretch the calf muscle group and strengthen muscles in the core and front part of the lower leg. This therapy can help the child learn to walk with a more typical “heel to toe” walking pattern. Sometimes your therapist will recommend a brace to wear during the day and/or at night in order to help get a child’s heel down when walking and stretch the Achilles tendon at night. In some cases, a series of casts may be used to help gain range of motion at the ankle. Surgery may be recommended for correction in rare cases or when “toe-walking” persists into later childhood.
“Toe- walking” can also be a sensory-seeking behavior. Children who need more proprioceptive input will lock their knees and ankles. Children may also lock these joints to feel more stable and better prepare them for physical activities, such as running. Some children walk on their toes as they are hypersensitive to different textures or temperatures on the floor. “Toe-walking” can become a habit and if done frequently, can lead to tight Achilles tendons. This is why, if you or your pediatrician feel like your child has sensory concerns, that they are evaluated by an occupational therapist to help with strategies.
Underlying Medical Diagnosis
If “toe- walking” persists beyond the age of 2 or if it is accompanied by muscle stiffness, difficulty with communication or language delays, coordination problems, or if your child toe-walks just on one side, it is a good idea to speak with your pediatrician about it so you can find out if there is an under-lying cause. Diagnoses including Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Charcot-Marie Tooth and Tethered Cord have all been linked with early “toe-walking”. Some (but not all) children with Autism and other Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD) have also been noted to toe-walk.
Idiopathic “toe-walking” is used to describe a child who toe-walks without any known reason. Children who walk on their toes may have frequent falls, lean more forward when they walk, and show more difficulty with balance. “Toe-walking” may also be hereditary, where more than one child in the family toe-walks. Early recognition and intervention is fundamental to prevent a shortened calf muscle and help develop a normal walking pattern and balance reactions.
Many children “toe-walk” as they learn to walk, and with a proper heel-to-toe walking pattern, they learn fairly quickly. However, if you are concerned that your child is toe-walking beyond the age of 2, or is showing other difficulties with development, it is important to speak with your pediatrician. They may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who can further assist you and your child.