Ball Pits & Sensory Stimulation For Autism
Sensory stimulation is important for all children, but perhaps especially for children with autism. Autistic children approach the world differently and process the things they see, touch and hear in a different way compared to many other children their age.
Ball pits are a fantastic toy for stimulating sensory development and processing in autistic children. They are often used in therapy contexts, but make the perfect at home environment to help your child feel safe and to have fun.
Explore fantastic foam ball bits from Tweepsy - perfect at-home ball pits for young children.
Let’s first look at autism and sensory input, before exploring in what ways ball pits provide support and stimulation, addressing the unique needs of each child. We’ll also provide some ideas for ball pit activities for sensory stimulation for those with autism.
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Autism and Sensory Input
Every child with autism is different, which means that every child will experience different challenges. However, struggling to process sensory input is very common in children on the autistic spectrum. It can involve either hyper-sensitivity and hypo-sensitivity to stimuli in the world, like bright lights, particular smells, things touching the skin and noises.
Sometimes, this is diagnosed as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Children who don’t have autism can still have SPD and will benefit from sensory stimulation and support.
Hypersensitivity means that a child easily becomes overwhelmed by things around them. This could include all sorts of things, but examples include bright lights, loud noises or noises of a certain frequency. Some children will find it hard to eat certain foods’, preferring more plain food, or won’t like other people touching them in a certain way or at all.
Children on the spectrum can experience sensory overload from things that other children and adults might not even notice.
Here are some examples of what a child with autism might experience if they have hypersensitivity to different senses.
- Fragmented images
- More pleasure in focusing on detail rather than the object as a whole
- Difficulty sleeping when there’s even a small amount of light
- Distorted vision: objects or lights look like they’re jumping around
You can help by reducing bright lights in a room, creating an environment that blocks out visual distractions, and giving the child sunglasses for outside. It will depend on the child’s unique needs as to what will be most helpful to them.
- Noise feels magnified
- Sounds, from music to voices, feels distorted
- Able to hear distant sounds or conversations that most people won’t be aware of
- Inability to filter out background noises, anything from the fridge humming to the TV being on, which can lead to problems with concentration
You can help by reducing background noise, like closing windows, giving the child headphones that minimise background noise and enable them to listen to music that calms them. It’s also important to warn the child when an environment they’re going to enter into will be loud.
- Being touched feels painful or uncomfortable - some autistic children don’t like being touched at all, which can affect their relationships
- Finds having things on their hands uncomfortable, like paint or pen
- Doesn’t like certain foods due to their texture
- Only tolerates certain clothes
- Doesn’t like brushing or washing their hair
Be respectful of a child’s dislike of being touched and try to understand that it’s not personal. This can be extremely difficult as a parent or guardian. There are ways to develop a child’s reaction to stimuli to help them better tolerate touch in the future, through sensory therapy, which we’ll discuss more soon. It can be helpful to tell a child when you’re about to touch them.
Try to introduce new textures slowly, and give the child control when you can - such as letting them brush their own hair.
- Dislikes of certain kinds of food due to their flavour, even if you might not think they taste of much
- Preferring smooth foods like mashed potato.
Try to cater to a child’s needs and understand that hypersensitivity is different to fussy eating - as long as they have some variety in their diet, so they still get good nutrition. You could consult a dietitian, particularly one that has worked with autistic children before.
- Dislikes people that wear strong perfumes
- Doesn’t like strong-scented shampoo or soap
- Finds strong smells intolerable, which can lead to problems with going to the toilet.
Avoid wearing perfume and don’t use air fresheners in the home. Where possible, choose shampoos, soaps and detergents that are unscented. Many soaps for sensitive skin will be unperfumed.
Balance & body awareness
- Moving the whole body to look at something
- Finds it hard to do small things that require fine motor skills, like tying shoelaces or doing up a button
- Gets car sick
- Dislike of sport or activities where movements have to be highly controlled
- Doesn’t like being off the ground or not having their head upright
Be patient with children that have hypersensitivity around balance and body awareness.
Many autistic children experience hyposensitivity. This can manifest in different forms, but a common example is a low sensitivity to pain. Clumsiness is another common example that is often used as a signal that helps to diagnose children. Clumsiness is caused because the brain has low sensitivity to body signals that help with balance and coordination.
Many children will display signs of either hyper or hyposensitivity, but some children will respond differently according to different sensory inputs. For example, a child might struggle to eat certain foods due to hypersensitivity to taste, but appreciate tight hugs due to hyposensitivity to touch.
Here are some examples of what a child with autism might experience if they have hyposensitivity to different senses.
- Objects appear featureless or dark
- Central vision is blurred while peripheral vision is sharp, or vice versa
- Poor depth perception - finds it difficult to catch or throw
Be patient with children who have hyposensitivity to visual stimuli and talk to a doctor about the best ways to help them. It will depend on each child’s individual needs as to the methods to best support them.
- May only be able to hear through one ear
- May not react or acknowledge certain sounds
- Might enjoy making a lot of noise or being in noisy places
You could use Makaton to support spoken language or other visual aids like pictures. Ensure you spend time in loud places, if the child enjoys it, to help stimulate them.
- Enjoys being hugged tightly and will hold other people tightly
- Has a high pain threshold
- Might not feel food when it’s in the mouth
- Enjoys the feel of heavy objects
- Enjoys chewing on things
- Might self-harm
Help by providing things of interesting textures to play with, like jelly or cornflour mixed with water. Ball pits are great for children with hyposensitivity to touch as the feeling of the balls is dynamic and frequently changing. Offer things that are safe for chewing.
- Might eat things or put things in the mouth that are inedible like stones, dirt or metal. This is called pica. Hyposensitivity isn’t always the only cause of this.
- Likes very spicy foods
Provide food that stimulates the child’s taste, like spicy foods, and try to be patient when teaching them what is and isn’t okay to put into the mouth. Ensure you watch them when they’re in an environment in which they might put things in their mouths, like at the seaside or in the garden.
- Doesn’t notice even extreme smells
- Might lick things as a way to get a better sense of them
Ensure that children with hyposensitivity to smell have a good washing routine, as they might not notice for themselves. Developing a good routine when they’re young might help them as they get older.
Balance & body awareness
- Clumsiness and bumping into people
- Might stand too close to people as they don’t know how to measure distance effectively
- Finds it hard to move through a room
- Rocks or spins in order to stimulate their senses
Practise activities such as using a rocking horse, swings or roundabouts as this helps to develop the vestibular system in the body. Also spend time catching a ball to help improve coordination. Keep rooms clear of potential obstacles. For example, try moving a coffee table from the centre of the room to the edge. You could also use weighted blankets.
It is extremely common for autistic children to struggle with sensory stimulation in some form or another, becoming stressed, anxious or uncomfortable due to stimuli that other children or adults might not even be aware of.
Children might react to sensory overload without it being clear that this is what’s happening.
Anything from bright lights to a new texture of clothing against the skin can cause overstimulation. This in turn causes stress, sometimes even physical pain, which presents itself in different ways. It could cause the child to become agitated, upset, withdrawn or angry. It’s not uncommon to lead to them acting out or having a meltdown.
Children always find it hard to communicate, and this is often an additional challenge for those with autism. It means that, as a parent or guardian, you have to learn what stimuli impact your child, what different behavioural reactions might mean and help them as best as possible.
Sensory integration therapy is used by many specially trained occupational therapists to help children with autism better process sensory input. It trains the brain to react differently to stimuli, helping children better cope with the world around them.
We’ll explore how sensory stimulation is important for those with autism, both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity, and how ball pits are a fantastic at-home space for children to explore their senses.
Developing Sensory Processing With Ball Pits
Children with autism need to learn how to process different sensory inputs. Children who are extremely sensitive to different stimuli have to learn how to better process the world in order to live more comfortably. Children who have low sensory input of different stimuli need to learn how to stimulate their senses in safe and enjoyable ways.
This is a long process that needs to be done gently and patiently. It requires training the brain to process information differently by slowly introducing stimuli and participating in activities that meet the child at the input level they can process.
There are various toys and activities that can help with this, one of which is ball pits.
Ball pits are frequently used in therapy environments as they create a safe space that stimulates different senses.
Interestingly, ball pits have different effects on children, according to their needs. They can awaken the senses of some children while calming those of others, depending on whether a child is hyper or hypo sensitive.
Proprioceptive & tactile
Ball pits are proprioceptive & tactile, which means they stimulate touch senses, as well as body awareness.
Proprioception: the sense of one’s own movement and position. Eg. body awareness. It is sometimes known as kinaesthesia.
Ball pits balls move as the person moves, becoming still when they do, which gives proprioceptive feedback. It helps to develop confidence and awareness of body movements, as ball pits combine movement with touch stimuli.
For children with hyposensitivity to touch, ball pits provide a safe and stimulating sensation as they are surrounded by the balls, which is often very pleasurable. Children can ‘swim’, dive and move around. They feel the balls subsequently moving against them, stimulating their senses. The feeling of having a lot of contact with a material can be very calming and create a safe space for the child to spend time.
The tactile nature of ball pits is often extremely calming and enjoyable for autistic children.
Ball pits & High Sensory Sensitivity
Children that have a hypersensitivity to touch can find ball pits therapeutic as they introduce touch sensations in a safe and controlled way. The sensation of the ball pit ball moving is very different from many stimuli; it is unlike a person’s touch or material brushing against the skin. Ball pits often have an extremely calming effect on autistic children.
The level of balls in a ball pit can be adjusted according to what the child feels comfortable with. Initially, a single layer of balls might be best, but this can be increased as the child learns to tolerate and adjust to the feeling of the balls. This should be done slowly, over weeks.
Alison Wheeland from Autism Speaks shared on the amazing effect that she’d seen personally by using ball pits for sensory integration therapy. She discusses a boy who struggled with hypersensitivity:
"Those balls felt strange to him at first. But he’s getting used to how they feel and the rattling sound they make when he moves. [...] This sensory integration approach change[s] the way that the boy’s brain interprets sensory information. It’s becoming easier for his parents to dress him because his clothes don’t bother him as much. Washing his hair is easier because he can tip his head back without panicking." (Source)
It explains how the use of ball pits can help autistic children to better process other tactile sensations and become more accustomed and better able to handle real world experiences.
At Home Ball Pits
While ball pits are commonly used in therapy environments, at home ball pits are a fantastic way for a child to enjoy daily tactile stimulation in the safety of a familiar environment. For many children, they help to create a space in which the child can take refuge when external stimuli become overwhelming.
Choosing a Ball Pit
There are many varieties of ball pits available from pop up and framed ball pits to foam. You should consider the type of ball pit carefully to ensure it lasts a long time and is appropriate for your child.
Blow up ball pits come with a risk of deflating due to damage, so are usually best avoided. Pop-up ball pits can’t always take the force of an over-excited child, especially one that is less aware of their own body’s capabilities.
Foam ball pits are usually the most popular choice. With soft foam walls that squish under a child’s weight, they add to the proprioceptive effect of the ball pit and are safer than some alternatives as there’s less risk of bumped heads. They are also less likely to break as the child can lean their weight against the wall without damaging it.
Lots of Colours
For many children, autistic or not, the bright colours of ball pits are enticing and appealing. This can be great for welcoming a child into a therapy environment, or just helping them to have fun! Children that have a low reaction to visual stimuli, might particularly appreciate the bright colours of the ball pit.
However, some children with hypersensitivity might find all the different colours stressful. Ball pits balls are available in simpler and more monotone colours.
Tweepsy has a range of foam ball pits in different colours and shapes, best suited for younger children.
Ball Pit Activities For Autism
A lot of children will simply enjoy being in the ball pit. It can be an environment in which they can complete other tasks or do things they enjoy like listening to music. However, there are various ball pit activities that can help with sensory and skill development.
Drop and Dive
The drop and dive activity involves dropping in a toy or a few toys, like a small teddy bear or some toy cars, into the ball pit and getting the child to ‘dive’ their hands into the balls to find the items. It helps children who struggle to connect to their senses better understand tactile signals by recognising the touch and feel of items.
Some children will just use their hands, while others will find crawling into the balls completely a calming and enjoyable experience.
Letters & words
Write letters on the balls to help your child learn them in a fun and more engaging way. This is a great way to get a more reluctant child to engage with reading and writing as the ball pit balls, for many, are more fun than pen and paper! Once the child knows their letters, the balls can be used to spell out words.
A simple game of catch can be really great for helping to develop coordination and improve body and balance awareness. With the child sitting in the ball pit and you throwing the balls from nearby, they can enjoy the tactile sensations of the balls, while also practising their hand-eye coordination skills.
Please remember that every child with autism is different and special. Ball pits are a fantastic sensory toy for many autistic children, but you should always be aware of your own child’s likes and dislikes!
If you’re looking for a fantastic at home ball pit, Tweepsy have a fantastic selection!