Category Archives: Sensory

Simple Hacks to Optimize Backpack Safety and Organization

by Cathy Collyer

One of the essential back-to-school items on every parent’s shopping list is a new backpack.  Beginning in preschool and progressing all the way through high school, kids use their backpacks every day.   As therapists, we are aware that how that backpack is filled and carried will either create problems for kids or solve them.   A pack that is too heavy, so full that it creates perceptual, sensory or cognitive roadblocks to organization, or missing essential tools for kids with special needs, is not doing it’s job.  With targeted education and the introduction of simple alternative strategies, we can improve the chances that backpacks end up helping every child perform well during this school year.

Here are some ways to help students manage their backpacks for optimal performance throughout the school year:

  • Lighten up. Kids tend to make their packs heavier than they need to be.  Hypermobile kids, kids with orthopedic issues and kids with low tone may be carrying packs that put them at significant risk for injury.  Make sure parents are aware of this issue, and help them by suggesting a review of backpack contents and downsizing the “essentials” whenever possible.  Small water bottles, travel sizes of toiletries, and a minimum number of pencils, pens or markers lighten the load.  For kids that aren’t aware of the sensory or cognitive overload of an overfilled pack, a backpack checklist or a smaller pack help them manage without an adult assuming responsibility for content management.

  • Teach kids how to pack and wear their pack. The heaviest items should be carried close to the body and content weight should be distributed equally across the back. Kids should use both straps when wearing their backpack.  The one-shoulder carry can be preferred by middle-schoolers wishing to look “cool”.  This overweighting of one side of the body puts them off balance and at-risk for injury.  It may be hard to change habitual behavior in children at this age.  Try identifying the child or children who seem to be admired and copied by their peers.  Influencing the kids who are acknowledged social leaders can change class culture quickly.   Don’t wait until children report neck and shoulder pain, but remind parents and teachers that the risk of strains, sprains and exacerbations of issues seen in tweens and teens like scoliosis are real.
  • Frequently used items should be quickly accessible in surface pockets, and items they need for their first class are reachable when they open their pack, not packed under other materials. Laminated photos of pocket contents can help children learn the habits of efficient storage.

  • Help kids remember to use their sensory tools by having them handy. Tools like Highlighter Strips and the Desk Buddy Multi-Textured Ruler are slim and can be left between pages of a book or workbook, ready to be used.  Calming tools like the Wristful Fidget can be worn, not shoved into a pack.  Since it looks like a sport wrap, kids aren’t as eager to toss it away when they pack up and go!  Kids may need more than one set of tools so that they can leave a set at school and another one at home. Items that do more than one job, like the Desk Buddy Ruler, have an advantage over carrying a bunch of fidgets and then an equal number of classroom tools.

  • Accept that altering behavior is a long game. Don’t get discouraged if kids only use some of these strategies to improve how they manage their backpacks.  Habits change slowly, and as the demands of the school year mount, it may take periodic reviews and revisions to find the right combination of equipment, organization and carrying strategies to make a difference!

Cathy Collyer, OTR, LMT, PLLC

Cathy Collyer, OTR, LMT has treated children with neurological, orthopedic and sensory processing disorders for over 20 years.  She is the author of The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone.  Learn more about her work at

Dyspraxia: Tips for Treating and Teaching Children with Coordination Challenges

Guest post by Barbara A. Smith.

Dyspraxia is one type of sensory processing disorder (SPD) that makes it difficult for children to plan and perform motor tasks such as stringing beads or riding a bicycle. Children with dyspraxia may

  • Appear clumsy
  • easily break things because they use too much force or
  • struggle to fit their arms into sleeves or sequence steps to shoe tying

Children with SPD often have more than one of the 6 subtypes that impact how their brains interpret and respond to what they see, hear, feel, smell, taste and how they move. They may seem extra active or lethargic, super sensitive or oblivious, have difficulty controlling their body while using their hands or can’t discriminate what part of their body was touched or is in pain.  Let’s take a look at a few strategies that may help children with dyspraxia and other types of SPD as well as children who are typically developing.

Simplify for Success

Nobody likes failure; especially young children who have poor coordination to stack rings, string beads or lace boards.  Consider purchasing, making or adapting these types of activities to make success easy and frequent. Try using

  • an extra large tube as a ring stack and rings to stack. The one shown in the photo is made by wedging a swimming noodle into a juice container and has a motorized pen inserted on top to make it vibrate.  Vibration helps children to focus on what their hands are doing.
  • thick cord and shower curtain rings for stringing instead of offering string and beads. Many toddlers will find this an easier introduction to stringing.
  • lacing boards with a few extra big  holes and thick cord. I attached the photo of a horse to this lacing board that I used with clients during Hippotherapy (therapy using a horse as a therapeutic tool).
Vibrating Ring StackLacing Board

Practice Makes Perfect

Design activities to require repetition. When a child closes a jacket there is usually only one zipper to connect or a few buttons. Many children benefit from the repetition of closing several button squares. As I describe in my book From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s Guide to Hand Skills, these are made by sewing a large button or round plastic piece (see photo) to fabric. Then cut a slit into another piece.  As your child develops skill, offer button squares with smaller buttons.

Button Squares

ZippersMany children are able to close a zipper once the slider is connected.  But connecting the slider onto the zipper is very tricky. In the photograph you see me wearing an old jacket and attaching several zipper sliders.  The sliders are sold in zipper repair kits or you can remove nice big ones from broken backpacks and suitcases. I have taught adults with developmental disabilities to zip their own jackets after practicing connecting and pulling up several slider every day.

Let’s Take Apart

Button BoardOpening buttons, screw caps, zippers and knots seems to be a lot easier than closing them.  One of the strategies I describe in my book From Flapping to Function: A Parent’s Guide to Autism and Hand Skills is to teach children to “ take- apart” before teaching them to “put-together”. In this way they will become familiar and successful with the materials before learning the more challenging motor skills of tying, buttoning, snapping, screwing lids etc. It is much easier to remove the fabric pieces from the “buttoning board” shown below and children will have many opportunities to practice. This board was made by drilling holes into a book stand and tying the “buttons” onto cord that is knotted through the holes.

Manipulation BoxIn my book The Recycling Occupational Therapist I describe how to make activities that are perfect for opening and taking apart. The Manipulation Box shown in the photograph has screw covers, Velcro strips, pull lids, and magnets attached to a cookie sheet so that children can remove a variety of objects to drop inside.

Keeping It Fun

Yes, practice is important but we need variation and to add sensory stimulation to keep it fun. That’s why I love

  • form boards and ring stacks that make music
  • adding a motorized pen inside containers to make insertion tasks vibrate
  • using materials such as Velcro and elastic cord that feel good to pull
  • toy animals with clothing fasteners to manipulate
  • using pretend play toys such as “Feed the Bunny”

Bunny Insertion TaskI covered an oatmeal container with fur, attached a face to the lid and photocopied some food items. Now “Feed the Bunny” is more than a plain old shape sorter. This great for working on choice making (i.e. shall we feed bunny a carrot or tomato?), identifying pictures, counting and of course promoting a healthy diet.  I hope that you have fun implementing some of these strategies!

Here are some great Therapro products I recommend that you might use in addition to the activities I’ve discussed:

Squiggle Wiggle Writer Pen
Squiggle Wiggle Writer Pen
Sound Puzzles
Sound Puzzles
Giant Plastic Nuts and Bolts
Giant Plastic Nuts and Bolts
Learn to Dress Monkey
Learn to Dress Monkey

Barbara A. Smith has worked with children and adults with developmental disabilities for over 40 years! She is the author of the Recycling Occupational Therapist, From Rattles to Writing: A Parent’s Guide to Hand Skills and From Flapping to Function: A Parent’s Guide to Autism and Hand Skills. Learn more about her work at

Saturday Seminar: Sensory Differences and Mealtime Behavior in Children with Autism

Jeanne-Zobel-LachiusaEvidence based practice (EBP) involves the integration of:

  1. Clinical expertise,
  2. Scientific research, and
  3. Patient/caregiver perspective.

The goal of EBP is the improvement of patient outcomes. It holds us accountable for our treatment plans, strategies and outcomes among our peers and other health care professions. According to the AOTA, generating research in the field of occupational therapy is “critically important for advancing the field and ensuring the viability of the profession.”

Jeanne Zobel-Lachiusa, EdD, OTR/L was the featured December Saturday Seminar Series speaker, who shared her research on Sensory Differences and Mealtime Behavior in Children with Autism (AJOT September/October 2015, Vol. 69, No.5).  In summary, the study results helped to identify problem eating behaviors in children with ASD that may be associated with sensory differences. Children with ASD were compared with typically developing age-matched peers. The study concluded that children with ASD who receive occupational therapy that offers sensory strategies might result in less stressful mealtimes.  The findings supported the need for further research in this area of self-care with children who have been diagnosed with ASD.

The seminar attendees were from varied backgrounds, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, special education, social work, psychology, child care, medicine, and parents. They engaged in a lively brainstorming session on sensory strategies in the different sensory domains that might provide mealtimes with less stress for both the child and family. They shared innovative as well as tried and true ideas with the group.

Just a few examples of the many suggestions include ideas for tactile and oral sensitivity:

Hush BuddyFor auditory sensitivity Jeanne suggested:

For children with sensitivity to fluorescent lights that flicker and glare in the cafeteria or classroom, Fluorescent Light Filters, which are magnetic were recommended. Another suggestion was for the student to wear a visor to reduce vision sensitivity.

Jeanne suggested a number of resources for the group including the book, Autism Interventions, and recommended the AOTA website for its user-friendly handouts on mealtime and feeding.

Producing research is essential for validating assessment and treatment strategies. Jeanne shared that her research was motivated by the question of whether interventions are actually effective.  Her current research demonstrated that there was a statistically significant difference in sensory differences and in mealtime behaviors between children with ASD and the typically developing group she tested.  This groundbreaking research paves the way for further studies to investigate specific treatment strategies discussed today for their effectiveness in helping make mealtimes a pleasurable experience for children diagnosed with ASD and their families.

To view Jeanne’s PowerPoint slides, click here.

Following the seminar, attendees provided feedback about the seminar.  Please see a few remarks below:

“It provided an opportunity to review recent literature and share strategies with other therapists.” Kristyn S., Occupational Therapist

“Loved the topic and the format. Jeanne was great!!   Diane H., Occupational Therapist

“Informative, interactive, insightful. It was interesting listening to other OTs experiences and suggestions.”  Sylvia K., OT student

“Helpful to organize sensory treatment with a food tolerance/mealtime behavior perspective.”  Anonymous Occupational Therapist

Thank you, Jeanne!

Filomena Connor, MS, OTR/L