10 Therapeutic Activities for Children with Autism

by Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L May 31, 2017

10 Therapeutic Activities for Children with Autism

Children enjoy diving hands first into play experiences. Completing the tasks of building blocks, working a puzzle, and drawing pictures will yield skills that the child will use throughout his lifetime. Occupational therapists are fortunate enough to be a critical part of the treatment team for children with special needs. Therapists who work with children are experts in looking at different games, activities, and toys to determine which skills a child needs to complete them. It is a fun job to have indeed!

Remember that children are wired to use their senses to develop skills during play. A toy that can be used in many ways and that involves more than one sense will automatically be more enjoyable. Multi-sensory means that more pathways to brain development are opened and used.


10 Of Our Favorite Therapeutic Activities for Children with Autism

1) Pool Noodles! One of the cheapest and most versatile pieces of equipment I recommend is a simple foam pool noodle. They can be used in so many ways. Stock up at your local thrift store in the spring and summer for year-round fun. Here are some ways to use them:

  • cut them up into two inch pieces to stack and build like blocks
  • label pieces of pool noodles with each letter of the alphabet and stack pieces of pool noodles on top of each other in alphabetical order
  • create boats out of pool noodles, straws, and triangles
  • use straws, pipe cleaners, and google eyes to create bugs
  • string two inch pieces of pool noodles using a piece of string or rope
  • cut them in half vertically and make pathways for water play
  • make obstacle courses out of pool noodles cut in half to create balance beams
  • make light sabers out of pool noodles by cutting them into quarters and wrapping duct tape around the top of each quarter to make a handle
  • do a search on our Harkla Pinterest board for awesome ideas

2) Create sensory bins full of fun items. It’s so easy to get stuck using only rice or grain. To prevent a huge mess, play on top of a shower curtain.

  • aquarium gravel comes in awesome colors
  • Easter grass
  • straws cut up into pieces……In fact, let kids cut the straws to build fine motor skills.
  • feathers
  • moon dough
  • tissue paper pieces
  • ribbon
  • buttons and beads
  • dirt and sand

3) Create a safe sensory time-out area. The area should be in a place in which your child feels safe and can relax, so avoid creating it in the center of the family’s home. Encourage your child to work with you and give them choices of material and what goes in the sensory area.

  • Use a large cardboard box from an appliance and tape the edges with colored duct tape to prevent paper cuts.
  • Hang a hula hoop decorated with ribbons so they cascade down. This is an awesome visual resembling a colorful waterfall which is awesome for tactile play too!
  • Even a closet or corner can work….it’s what’s inside that’s important.
  • Include our Harkla weighted blanket and lap pad.
  • Add a CD player or music your child finds calming.
  • Make sure your child has fidget items to keep hands busy.

4) Keep maze books, word searches, eye spy puzzles on hand. It’s important to work on visual skills while having fun. There are so many fun computer and electronic games, but working on paper/pencil tasks helps not only coordination of the hands, but also on visual perceptual skills. The eyes learn to work together and skills such as problem solving, and visual scanning (looking at the entire page in order to find a solution).

5) Visual schedules have been critical in both my clinic and in my own home. I depend on a calendar and schedule to keep on track. It’s been proven that many children with autism are visual learners. This means that a picture schedule outlining the steps of a task is helpful. Even for daily tasks such as taking a shower, a schedule of the steps should be posted so that kids know exactly what to expect and what comes next. This can be incorporated with play activities. So, take pictures of a block tower and number them. Ask your child to put them in order by saying, ‘What comes first?’ and so on. One of the most helpful tools parents can use is a camera. Take step by step photos of each activity, print, and laminate them.

6) Make an obstacle course. Use anything you can find. Taped lines are wonderful for ‘pretend’ balance beams. Hula hoops, bean bag tossing, jump ropes can all be included. Walking like animals is always fun and builds awesome gross motor skills.

  • hop like a frog
  • gallop like a horse
  • slither like a snake
  • crawl like a puppy
  • wiggle like a worm
  • jump like a kangaroo
  • walk like a crab
  • prance like a unicorn

7) Sensory and calm-down bottles are all the rage right now. Why? They can be customized for each child and are designed for many purposes. They can be created with water, hair gel, water beads, and other filler materials. The addition of smaller items your child prefers make the bottles fun and add visual appeal. For example, adding hair gel with a bit of water and glitter is awesome so that the glitter falls slowly through the bottle. Paper clips are fun to add so that kids can use a magnet to attract and move the paper clips throughout the jar. Check out Pinterest for thousands of ideas for sensory bottles.

8) Playground and outdoor activities help children to use so many senses together. Encourage kids to play outside and in bare feet whenever possible. If your child is not fond of playground equipment, he may be letting you know that he needs additional therapy in order to overcome a fear or motor weakness. Ask questions about why he doesn’t prefer the equipment or only walks in circles around the playground vs. using the equipment as designed. Offer fun alternatives such as alphabetic scavenger hunts and finding items beginning with each letter of the alphabet.  

9) Involve your child in daily decisions. Remember that children love to participate and gain parental approval. Even the most mundane of tasks can be fun when done together. For example, set a weekly menu. Look through cookbooks and the pantry to decide what items need to be added to the grocery list. Ask your child what meals he prefers and ask him to find out the required items and write them on the list. Then, shop together and work on getting familiar with the store. Finally, checking out helps with money management and budgeting. Remember that the ultimate goal is for your child to function independently and it’s never too late to start.

10) Add ‘brain breaks’ or YOGA and movement activities into your child’s day. It’s critical to ensure your child is taking a break at school and preparing mentally for difficult assignments and tests. Deep breathing and calming strategies should be practiced when things are calm and not stressful so that they can be easily accessed when a child is stressed. Many breathing exercises and brain breaks can be found on the internet and here, at the Pocket Occupational Therapist website.

Keep following the Harkla blog for more awesome tips and helpful ideas to help those with special needs. We strive to provide the latest topics and activities for your family. What activities are your favorites in your home? Let us know!

Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L
Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L

Pediatric occupational therapist, Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L, author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series, is a veteran clinician of 20+ years specializing in Sensory Processing Disorder, reflex integration, trauma informed care, and autism. She obtained her Master of Occupational Therapy degree in 1997 from Duquesne University. In addition to her longstanding work as a private practice OT, Cara is a successful entrepreneur, having started two companies. Her products can be found in special needs catalogues and websites across the US and UK. Cara’s latest venture is The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series. As an author, Cara brings her expertise as a pediatric occupational therapist and mother of two children with autism to parents, caregivers, families, and educators in an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow format. All five books are available at The Pocket Occupational Therapist website at http://www.pocketot.com and on Amazon.

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