By Joanna Blanchard, MOTR/L
Last month we explored ideas for children to find sensory input in the home. Here are some strategies for self-regulation to help teens during times of stress, transitions, homework or down times. By this age, your child may be able to articulate their likes and have established patterns. Keep in mind that we all need stimulation to stay alert or calm at times. Identifying your own sensory preferences and supports can help your insight and empathy in helping your teen.
- Look at the environments, choices and activity that your teen chooses frequently. What colors, textures, sounds, tastes, smells and movements attract or repel them?
- Your teen may need to decompress after school. Do they have a space for this? Consider repainting a wall in the bedroom, reorienting the bed, adding different blinds or even a canopy to help create an age-appropriate hang out that’s relaxing and “cool.”
- Heavy blankets and weighted items are still a go-to for this age, but harder to find in the larger sizes: try knitted afghans or quilts that have some heft for sleep and down time.
- Try a white noise machine or classical music in the background. Headphones or earplugs can also be useful for noise and distractibility.
- Try to find the music that helps their alert level. Is it classic rock? Hip Hop? It may not be your preference, however this is where parents may have to take deep breaths and invest in earplugs if it helps get homework or dinner done peacefully.
- Try fitted shirts or bike shorts underneath baggier clothing.
- Have your teen carry lotion or essential oils in their backpack to help stimulate calming and deep breathing.
- Pedicures and manicures work for adults, why not our teens?
- Baths and showers can work for relaxation as well.
- Water bottles and drinks with straws provide oral input. Use hard candy, pretzels, jerky or dried fruit for chewing. Some teens love chewing ice cubes or raw pasta (Consult with your child’s dentist beforehand).
- Movement is still key with this age group: Teens can still benefit from swinging in a hammock or jumping on a trampoline.
- Using an exercise bike or walking on a treadmill while watching a movie or listening to music can be helpful.
- Use a therapy ball to sit on for doing homework, watching television or playing video games.
- Indoor chair hammocks and swing seats can be found in online therapy catalogs and at stores like IKEA. (I’ve been known to use them for reading in as they provide deep pressure and soothing movement after a long day!)
- Sedentary teens are more likely to be sedentary adults, and new studies have found that kids with autism are less physically active then their peers. This can put them at risk for health problems as adults and ironically this is the group who NEEDS movement and input to organize more than their peers.
- At this age, when many kids are moving on to groups and organized team activities, it can be challenging for children on the spectrum. However, it’s important for many reasons, including building self-esteem. Factors such as social skills, motor planning, and processing can hinder participation in activities for our kids, so they need our support and advocacy to participate and be successful.
- Try an activity such as Miracle League, Special Olympics or Therapeutic Yoga, offered locally. Talk to your local intermural/community education coaches about adaptations.
- What about a role as manager on the school team? If playing in the game is too much, helping carry heavy ball bags and practicing with the team is a great way to be part of the team and get moving. Find a senior looking for a project to assist.
- Musical instruments and singing provide a deep body vibration and rhythmic breathing. Percussion instruments help with motor coordination, provide heavy work and rhythm is organizing. Just humming helps with breath control and provides deep vibrational input in the body.
- Art is something that we often forget with this age group, having moved away from cut and paste activities in school. Painting, pottery and even coloring is a great way to get visual and tactile input.
- Pets can be a great therapy tool. One of our occupational therapists says taking care of her goldfish is part of her sensory diet. The sounds and visuals of the aquarium are calming, the heavy work and tactile input she gets while cleaning the tank organizes her.
- Whatever your child chooses, give it time and repetition. Any new activity has a learning curve. Fade out support as they become more independent.
- Don’t forget chores. Vacuuming, dusting, sweeping and washing windows are great sensory activities and build on shared family involvement and responsibility.
- Remember that your child will change and these years will seem volatile at times. Find the things that your child is drawn to or passionate about, and lean into it. Thinking ahead, you may be helping them build a future in the community as an adult!
Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two boys on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Washington. Have a question for Joanna? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.