Close your eyes and imagine yourself swinging on a warm sunny day. Feel the breeze blowing past you and the fluttering butterflies in your stomach as the swing reaches its highest point. The freedom and feeling of flying is one of the reasons why swings have remained a staple in backyards and playgrounds all over the world. But what does swinging have to do with autism? Why are swings and indoor sensory rooms becoming more popular?
A pioneer in the field of occupational therapy (OT), Dr. A. Jean Ayers was both an OT and psychologist. She contributed a great deal to OT and developed a body of work discussing the theory of sensory integration. It explains the relationship between the brain and behavior and why individuals respond in a certain way to sensory input. Dr. Ayres described sensations of touch (tactile), vision, smell, taste, and sound (auditory). Additionally, two more senses provide information that is critical for our function in daily life against gravity. Our vestibular (movement and balance) sense provides information about where the head and body are in space and in relation to the earth's surface. Proprioception (in joints and muscles) provides information about where and in what position our body is in space. Therapists from all disciplines now utilize sensory integration techniques in therapy.
Most baby shower registries list a swing as a must-have item. Likewise, resort hotels often hang hammocks between gorgeous palm trees for optimal relaxation. Swinging is not just for children, but is enjoyed by people of all ages. Swinging back and forth, or linearly, is calming to almost anyone. Many look forward to taking a nap in a hammock. The gentle sway reminds us of being rocked. In fact, our inner ear contains specific receptors designed to detect motion in all directions. Further, by providing information about movement, swinging can stimulate our sense of motion and orientation in space. According to the STAR Institute, children with disorders in processing sensory information may have difficulty knowing where their body is. Symptoms include clumsiness, motion sickness, frequent crashing into objects, poor posture, overall weakness, feeding difficulties, and a great deal of trouble with many other tasks in daily life. This is frustrating for the child so therapy is often prescribed to help them become more confident and independent. Studies have shown that one in twenty children may experience sensory processing disorder and the numbers are even greater in children with autism (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). Many speculate that over three-quarters of all children with autism have sensory processing disorder. (Tomchek and Dunn, 2007).
Children with autism often feel dysregulated, or confused and overwhelmed within their environment. They can over-react or under-react to various noises, sensations, sights, tastes, touch and more. Many of them find the smooth rocking and swaying of a swing to help them to relax and feel soothed. They may be able to concentrate and focus better during and after movement activities. It is for this reason therapists permit kids to fidget and move to focus. Swinging and moving can also give kids’ bodies information about where they are in ‘space’ and in relation to their surroundings. The stimulation of their vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (position) senses helps them to feel more in control of their body.
One of the most important instructions therapists give is that sensory integration therapy should be child-driven. So, the child should choose what type of swing feels best for his/her body. Some children crave the feeling of hugs, squeezes, and deep muscle pressure. They would benefit from a swing that is made of spandex material that gives a hug along with movement. In fact, after the use of this type of swing, children may be able to pay attention and be more focused. Other children may have low energy levels and seem ‘sleepy’ or tired all of the time. They may prefer a swing that gives movement in all directions, such as a tire swing. The best way to choose a swing is to consult an occupational therapist to obtain a full sensory profile since children’s sensory needs can change depending on the time of day and even from one sense to another!
Adding swings to a child’s setting can be wonderful for their function and comfort. Placing a cozy pillow in a net or our Harkla hanging pod swing can be calming. Add music and some fidget toys and you’ve created a safe and comfortable escape from daily stress. When children feel the need to swing, they can move their body to work on core strength as they propel back and forth. Bolster and moon swings help children to work on trunk and core muscle strengthening. By holding on with both arms and legs, they use their entire body to work together. Remember that we all need sensory input and the ultimate goal is to have fun while doing activities that are good for our sensory, motor, and emotional systems.
Ben-Sasson, A., Hen, L., Fluss, R. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2009) 39: 1. doi:10.1007/s10803-008-0593-3
Tomchek, S.D., Dunn, W.; Sensory Processing in Children With and Without Autism: A Comparative Study Using the Short Sensory Profile. Am J Occup Ther 2007;61(2):190-200. doi: 10.5014/ajot.61.2.190.
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