Sensory Interventions and Supports for ASD (page 2)

By — Autism Society
Updated on Jul 28, 2009

Sensory-Alerting Strategies

A child with ASD may experience times in which they are lethargic and appear unmotivated (under-responsivity). This state of arousal impedes sustained engagement, a key component to successful interventions for a child with ASD. Engagement involves performance in occupations or activities as the result of self-choice, motivation, meaning and purpose. Initiation and maintenance of engagement involves effective sensory processing for receiving and interpreting sensory information for functional performance. When children are in an under-responsive arousal state, they demonstrate a decreased awareness, orientation and response to sensory input, and would benefit from alerting sensory interventions and supports. Sensory-alerting strategies include smelling peppermint or citrus scents, tasting sour candy or sour food like lemons, manipulating hand fidgets like squeezing a stress ball or fiddling with paperclips, listening to fast-paced music, standing rather than sitting down at a school desk, movement ‘jobs’ such as passing out papers or running an office errand, and sitting on a ball chair that increases in-seat behavior and engagement in children with ASD (Schilling & Schwartz, 2004).

Improving Praxis

Poor sensory processing in a child with ASD can lead to dyspraxia— difficulty executing unfamiliar motor actions affecting oral motor, fine motor and gross motor skill acquisition. Dzuik et al. (2007) found that dyspraxia might be a core feature of autism or a marker of the neurological abnormalities underlying the disorder. Dyspraxia in a child with ASD can manifest symptoms such as illegible handwriting, being accident prone or poor articulation skills. Strategies to improve praxis (motor planning) include breaking tasks into small steps, using pictures to sequence the child through the steps, having peer models visually demonstrate the task and practicing new skills with at least five repetitions in one sitting.

Benefits of Play

The sensory qualities of activities of daily living can be overwhelming for children with ASD, causing children to have behavioral outbursts, avoidance and problems with these skills. Play skills are an important foundation to facilitating improvement with other activities of daily living. Hilton et al. (2008) found significant differences in play participation between typical and high- functioning ASD groups in number of activities, number of individuals with whom they participate and variety of environments. These findings suggest social impairment impacts play participation, and addressing social skill intervention can increase participation. Participation in sports is one aspect of play that can benefit children with ASD. The benefits of playing sports include improved cardiovascular, enhanced muscle tone, maintenance of healthy weight, stress release, sensory modulation, socialization, developing a new skill, feeling a sense of belonging and improved self-esteem. Sports should be chosen that are simple and encourage more participation, such as swimming, gymnastics, martial arts and bicycling. By addressing play skills, children with ASD improve motor skills, focus, motivation and sensory processing, all which are components of activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating, sleeping, bathing, brushing teeth and toileting. It is also important that the child with ASD have opportunities for spontaneous play to develop imagination and creativity.

A pediatric occupational therapist can help children with ASD by facilitating sensory interventions and supports to meet their unique needs. Through evaluation, observation and talking to parents and teachers, occupational therapists play a vital role in determining developmentally appropriate skills, providing sensory interventions, facilitating play for social interactions, devising transition strategies, collaborating with family and community members, and assisting with engagement in meaningful tasks to increase each child’s quality of life.

Jenny Clark Brack, OTR/L, BCP (AOTA Board Certification in Pediatrics) can be reached through her website:

For resources on ASD, go to

For information about sensory processing disorder, go to

For information about occupational therapy and autism, go to:  


Dziuk, M.A., Gidley Larson, J.C., Apostu, A., Mahone, E.M., Denckla, M.B., & Mostofsky, S.H. (2007). Dyspraxia in autism: Association with motor, social, and communicative deficits. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49: 734-739.

Hilton, C.L., Crouch, M.C., & Israel, H. (2008). Out-of-school participation patterns in children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 554-563.

Miller, L.J. (2006). Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Schilling, D., &  Schwartz, I. (2004). Alternative seating for young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Effects on classroom behavior. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 423-432.

Tomchek, S., & Dunn, W. (2007). Sensory processing in children with and without autism: A comparative study using the short sensory profile. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 190-200.

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