As children, we learn about the 5 senses and how they help us interpret the world. The smell of warm bread tells us a bakery is nearby. We know something exciting is happening when we hear people cheering. But kids with autism struggle with these everyday sensory inputs. Their senses are out of sync; lights are too bright, sounds are too loud, and smells are too strong.
In recent years, sensory swings have become a staple sensory integration tool for children with autism. From increasing attention span, to improving coordination, the benefits of sensory swings for children with autism are endless.
Think about the last time you sat on a porch swing or hammock. Or the last time you wrapped up in your comforter while reading a book. How did you feel? Relaxed? Concentrated? Safe?
A sensory swing uses these concepts to provide a safe space for children with autism.
Much like a blanket, the sensory swing cuddles and cocoons the child as they swing back and forth. The swing’s material is soft to touch and contains lycra—an elastic material known for its durability.
Although as children we learned about the 5 main senses in school, the brain actually uses 7 senses to interpret the world around us. Located within the inner ear, the vestibular system is the sense of movement and balance. It lets us know if we’re moving, how fast we’re moving, and in which direction we’re headed. A developed vestibular system allows us to navigate our environment with confidence. This is because our brain knows exactly where the body is in relation to other objects.
The proprioceptive system brings all our senses together. It takes external input and tells our muscles how to react. A person with a strong proprioceptive system knows where their body is in relation to space without much concentration.
For many children with autism, these two systems are underdeveloped. This causes them to feel overwhelmed and leads to sensory meltdowns.
To strengthen these two systems, occupational therapists usually recommend a sensory diet. This personalized list of activities either activate or calm your child’s senses. Activities such as swaddling and swinging are two essential methods of integration therapy for autism.
Sensory swings work by providing children with autism with vestibular and proprioceptive input. The swinging motion activates fluid in the inner ear, which activates vestibular sensory receptors. With each swing, your child’s view of the room changes. They can feel the wind against their face and maybe even butterflies in their stomach. Their brain begins to tell them, “Okay, the view of the room is changing, I feel butterflies, so I must be swinging.”
The cocoon-like nature of the swing puts gentle pressure all over the child’s body, while blocking out external stimuli. This Deep Pressure Therapy allows your child to actually feel their body’s movements. Thus, strengthening the proprioceptive system.
By strengthening the vestibular system, your child’s balance and coordination will also increase. When children with autism have trouble processing vestibular input, their body doesn’t know how to move within their environment. When they go to jump, they can’t judge how far their jump needs to be. If they want to do a somersault, they don’t know that they will land on the ground. Even zipping up their jacket or writing can be difficult.
As your child sits in their sensory swing, they gain confidence that their body is safe— even when their feet are off the ground. The stronger these associations become, the more their balance improves.
Strengthening the proprioceptive system also has its benefits. Not only does proprioceptive input increase spatial awareness, but it has an overall calming effect. Sensory input from cuddling and swinging calms the body’s “fight or flight” response. This soothes your child’s overwhelmed senses, making them feel more “in balance.” Because of this, many parents find that swinging before or during homework increases concentration.
Sensory swings also increase muscle tone in children with autism. Different swinging positions can be used to target different muscle groups. To strengthen their head and neck muscles, have your child swing on their stomach. If your child suffers from weak core muscles, try rolling up the fabric like a normal swing. The lack of back support will strengthen abdominal muscles and improve posture.
The versatility of sensory swings makes them a great tool for both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. This makes them a great sensory integration tool for children with autism.
If you feel that your child will benefit from a sensory swing, it is important that you talk with your child’s OT. Remember that your child’s needs may change from day to day, and they should never be forced to participate in sensory activities.
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