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little sensory tricks to help kids with ASD and ADHD

Updated on September 8, 2011

Sensory problems can make hyperactivity and poor attention worse

When a child has sensory problems, their attention may be very divided- they may try to focus on their work but be distracted by the inexplicable "not quite right" feeling that they have. Sometimes the physical need to fidget may triumph over their attempts to focus on school work.

There are simple little tricks that you can use to help them, in this lens I will try to help you understand a few of them and how they work. Once you understand the basics of the sensory interference, you will be able to combine your knowledge and creativity to find what combinations work best for your child.

Bead fidget - simple and effective

If the child is able to sit, but is constantly fidgeting with their hands, touching and poking etc you should probably try a simple bead fidget. These are strings of beads (usually pony beads) attached to a belt loop. Since Cutie is right handed, I keep his beads on the left because he has to use the right hand for writing.

We started with a very simple one. As I saw how effective they were, I began to make more interesting ones based on the designs of Army Ranger Pace Counting beads and golf score beads (both use different stringing techniques to allow the beads to be moved and stay where the child wants them). I love the Ranger Beads because we actually got the real thing, Cutie is about to be 7 and he gets teased as it is. With the Ranger beads, there is not much to tease about- Army Rangers use them. Cutie now has 12 choices and picks one out every morning! He has told me that they work great for him, I have also heard this from several older children with ADHD.

You can buy or make them, I bought the Ranger and Golf beads and make all of the rest.

Chewy Tubes

For kids whose mouths are constantly moving no matter what, try Chewy Tubes! These are very hard to break or damage, so choking is not as much of a concern. Most kids who use chewy tubes like to wear them around their necks. If you do this, I recommend using something that would easily break if about 5 lbs were applied- this way, you reduce the strangulation hazard. Keep a special one with NO string available for bedtime as they should not wear anything around their necks when they sleep.

Chewy Tubes offer great oral motor exercise, strengthen jaw muscles and improve the movement of the tongue all while helping them focus!

These are not very expensive and I recommend you do NOT attempt to make anything to serve this purpose as choking and toxicity is of special concern.

Chewy Tubes can occupy a busy mouth!


We use Aron's Thinking Putty (chameleon) but regular old silly putty works just as well! Allow the child to squooosh it around in their hand while they write with the other hand. The big advantage putty has over bead is that the child can still have their hand on the table to hold the paper, the disadvantage is that a child with poor attention is easily distracted by watching their hand squish the putty and the writing hand tends to drift over to get a taste of the action as well.

You can also use the putty for fine motor exercise. Hide some small objects (like pony beads) in it and have the child pick them out! See if the child can hold each object with their pinky, ring and middle fingers (as a collection) while picking out more with their thumb and index fingers. Be sure to find and put away the objects when you are done as this is a supervised activity because of the choking hazard.


Need a calming activity?

We found that swinging was so effective for Cutie that we actually bought (for $150) an indoor swing set. His set is very versatile as it has a hammock, swing seat and trapeze. We use the hammock the most as it provides the most calming for him. Gently swing the child for a few minutes. When introducing it, it is important that it not be used immediately after a 'scary tantrum'- use it before they work up to one or as a reward. The swinging sensation provides amazing sensory experiences including triggering a release of seratonin so it is an excellent re-inforcer. We also use it when cutie is worried or just getting too wound up.

Before we bought the swing, we used to use a sturdy blanket and have him lay in the center. One adult held the blanket by his head, one held near his feet and we swung side to side.

Please remember that this activity is so powerful for the child that they may get upset when it ends. To reduce behavioral problems you can count down from ten at the end (each full swing being one) and during the countdown gradually reduce the speed of the swing

Wilbarger's Brushing Protocol - Talk to your Child's OT about this, they can show you!

This works best if done every hour initially and then gradually reduced- Cutie now uses it only as needed, but the first year we did it was every hour. He learned quickly to love it and stopped fighting and about 6 months in his behavior improved drastically. You are providing proprioceptive input and triggering the release of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals have a calming effect (if done correctly- if you do it incorrectly the child becomes VERY hyper- FIRM PRESSURE is correct).

Start at the shoulder (on the top side of the arm) and apply firm pressure as you slowly sweep the brush down to the fingertips. Then, start just below the armpit and sweep down toward the palm until you reach the fingertips. Repeat on the other arm. Then, start at the hip (front on top of the leg) , firm pressure as you sweep down to the toes. Repeat on the other leg. Last, have the child lay on their tummy, applying firm pressure, sweep the brush from the shoulder blade down to the toes- you should be 1/2 way between the spine and the side of the child (NOT TOUCHING THE SPINE).

Never use the brush on the abdomen or spine. You should also avoid the head, but the child may take the brush to do their hair etc, that's ok.

Any old brush will not do. The wrong type can easily cause an excitatory response (if the bristles are too soft) or pain if the bristles are too firm.

Surgical scrub brushes work very well, you can continue re-use daily them for this purpose (not if they have been used for their actual intended purpose please) Ask your child's doctor, they may be willing to give you a freeby. Sometimes they contain soap, you have to really rinse those out first.

Alternatively, you can buy a Willbarger Brush online, ours was $7.

Weighted Writing Implements

Help significantly with poor proprioception

If your child's hand seems to float off of the page or they have seriously illegible writing (for their age) or if they are unable to copy something simple like a circle, square or triangle (as would be appropriate for their age) try a heavier pencil, crayon etc. Special weights are available at special needs stores that allow any utensil to be inserted. These range from $6-$30 depending upon weight and style.

Adding weight to a pencil allows the child to feel where their hand is in relation to their body a bit better and usually you see an improvement after they adjust to the grip (a couple days, often within minutes). Because the child is better able to sense their own hand, they gain better control. Unless the child has a physical disability as well as the sensory, use should eventually be reduced until they no longer need it. In Cutie's case we used them for 18 months and although he still does better with one, you can read his writing with anything he uses.

Cutie's writing with weighted utensil

Cutie's writing with weighted utensil
Cutie's writing with weighted utensil

Balancing on a Ball on your Tummy

For homework when the child has already just had enough of the school work.....

Lay the task on the floor next to a pencil or crayon etc. Place a medium exercise ball in front of the task. Ask the child to write their name. When they have completed this, rock the ball gently back and forth (head to toe) about 5 times. If they loved it, tell them they can have more after each question on their homework (find a way to break up the work into frequent reward rocking). The physical exertion to stay balanced on the ball helps to channel some of that energy as well as being a fun and unexpected way to do homework!

Got any little sensory tricks?

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    • NicoleLynn711 profile image

      Nicole 6 years ago from Bethel, CT

      "Cutie" is very lucky to have such an involved, patient, and loving mother like you! Sounds like you have earned your own Occupational therapy degree at home. Very helpful lens!

    • Chris-H LM profile image

      Chris-H LM 6 years ago

      Thank you. These are very interesting and useful tools to help a child that needs a little extra to stay focused.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 6 years ago

      This is such good info.

    • sushilkin lm profile image

      sushilkin lm 6 years ago

      Like your lens. Thanks for sharing on Squidoo!!

    • SandyORiley profile image

      SandyORiley 6 years ago

      I have a friend with a child that was recently diagnosed. He isn't I am sure some of these tricks might be helpful. I will pass it along. Thanks for the info.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Excellent lens, my nephew has autism and I will share this info, thanks so much!

    • lilymom24 profile image

      lilymom24 6 years ago

      Very helpful lens and brings back memories from when my oldest was younger. She hated almost all forms of sensory stimulation so therapy sessions were very difficult and emotionally draining. After a time, she became desensitized to an extent and it was easier. The most calming activity for her was swinging.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      What a helpful lens this is. I also read somewhere of a child behaviour expert who says that in some cases, children who cannot sit still just need to dance.

      Lensrolled to my APD ;ens :)

    • zentao profile image

      zentao 6 years ago

      Excellent lens, Seems like it is very helpful

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great lens and very useful info. Thanks for sharing.

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 6 years ago

      Lensrolled to my: Squidoo people with a good heart - Part II, Intelligence and Prejudice and Helpful Tips for Raising lenses. Hope it helps!

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 6 years ago

      In nursing we were introduced to 'therapeutic touch' techniques. I can really grasp how effective and calming these things would be (to a child with ASD or anyone with anxiety, really). I have heard about the use of sensory brushes too, within the study of massage therapy. So glad you showcased so many things to help children and adults here. Wonderful work, as always. Take good care, Rose

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      So wonderful lens as well .. dearest sidther. How are you? For me, I think the sensory brushes is so useful and helpful more than the other for learning by touching. Always love to visit all of your lenses. Have wonderful times.. my dearest friend :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Yes, sensory tricks is a great idea to help kids and adults.

      Great idea for a topic.