Many of our students have sensory issues and we need to provide them with extra tools to address these needs throughout the day. This post and video helps explain some of the ‘why’ behind these toys and a reflection in video to the different toys/tools we have in our school. Thank you Ashland Autism Teacher Laura Ryba for starring in this post’s video! (Always go to the experts in your school for these types of issues!)

WHY SENSORY TOYS AND TOOLS: Before we get into the different types of toys and what to buy, we should always first think of our goals with these tools. What does your student need to access the curriculum, be successful in the environment, or reduce anxiety? Is there a glaring need that they are showing to have that we need to address? Focus first on goals and the root cause to then determine the tool, otherwise we are just randomly giving kids things that may actually have a negative impact on their education.

FIVE SENSES: We learned this early in our schooling, right? The Five Senses: Hearing, Sight, Taste, Touch, and Smell. Each of these presents challenges for some of our students if they are (a) overloaded or if they are (b) deprived of them. Think of some of our students having these as a massive radar chart with the senses. A radar chart can show relative strengths and weaknesses of each individual based on their preferences, genetics, and/or abilities. I created a graphic representation as an example below. If one sense is extremely sensitive, it can be quickly overloaded in various school environments like the cafeteria, assemblies, gym class, or even the classroom.

ANXIETY: One other ‘sense’ we need to consider besides the ones we learned in school is anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. In many cases for our students, this 6th sense, anxiety, is how they perceive the world around them, and can have a more significant impact on them than the other senses. In many cases, anxiety or anticipation of something is actually the real issue, but it presents outwardly in a different way. For instance, if a child knows that a dramatic part in a movie is coming (the death of Mufasa in Lion King), they may cover their ears or run away. One may think that it’s because of the music getting louder in the movie, but it really may be because of the anticipation of an emotionally charged scene. Another example from school may be when we have a new event or assembly and the student doesn’t know what to expect. This causes fear and anxiety. Students may request headphones or other sensory tools. Again, one may think this is an auditory issue, but in many cases the root concern from the student is anxiety. The tool helps to make the student feel more in control or safer.

WHICH TOOL TO USE: There are so many new toys and tools for sensory-related issues that a simple blog post isn’t going to cover. Many toys may be distracting with one child and supportive to another, so each individual will have to be provided something unique for them. Remember that the toy or tool should be attached to a need for the child. Either to reduce senses or increase senses. If a child needs a toy to stay focused, make sure they know how and when to use it. The parameters on use are vital for the child so they know that this is to support them and not just as a toy to distract.

FINAL THOUGHTS: As an educator and administrator, I’ve gained some knowledge of this issue, but so much more I’ve learned as a parent of child with sensory issues. It is important that we try to look forward and predict when anxiety may increase and provide the necessary tools proactively. Every child has a right to these tools so they can not only access education like others, but feel safe and comfortable while doing so.