Developing Sensorial Skills

Allyson Locke M.S., OTR/L

Porch, the home services platform, recently reached out to Therapro for help with their latest article, Expert Advice to Design the Ultimate Kids Playroom at Home. The question needing an answer was, what toys and products can help kids develop sensorial skills? Therapro’s team of experts had a lot to say on this topic! Read on to see what Therapro shared and be sure to check out the full article!

Sensorial skills encompass the five well known sensory systems tactile/touch, gustatory/taste, olfactory/smell, auditory/hearing, and visual/ sight as well as the lesser known vestibular and proprioceptive systems.  With so many different systems the answer to this question is quite extensive.

Fidgets and chews are typically well known and well associated with sensory and sensorial development. Chews, as their name implies, are a category of items that are designed to be chewed. Chewing provides great proprioceptive input through the jaw area; this type of input can be very helpful for soothing but also great in the development of this system.  Some chews have added textures (like bumps or ridges) that add a tactile component.  Therapro offers a free handy guide, Choose Your Chew, to help make it easier to find the perfect chew.  Fidgets are generally small objects that are held or manipulated. There are many fidget options available; depending on the fidget’s characteristics, they can help alert (wake up) or calm the sensory system.  Therapro offers a free handy guide, Find Your Fidget, to make it easier to find the perfect fidget.

Games and activities that involve movement and body position sense are great for targeting the vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive systems. Some examples of games include; Trunks, Spark Action Floor Game, and the Body Awareness Fun Deck.  Movement based activities include playing with a parachute, riding a scooter board, completing sensory paths, doing yoga, and making obstacle courses with things like balance beams or stepping stones.  Adding music enhances the movement experience by adding an auditory component.  The resource Sensational Fun: Recreational Activities For Sensory Diets And Fun, includes over 100 activities for parents and teachers who are looking for some great sensory games using common objects found in the home and school (free sample activities are available!).

Games and activities that involve touching and feeling are great for targeting the tactile sense. Games and activities that have a specific tactile focus include; Tactile Search & Match, Feel ‘n Find, Sensory Collage Kit, Ruff’s House Teaching Tactile Set, and Gel Activity Pads. Playing with clay/ playdough is another great option and scented dough has the added benefit of bringing in the olfactory sense. 

Multisensory environments are another option for immersing in the sensorial experience. Unlike traditional multisensory environments, the Luminea line of products offers an interactive component through its app or optional switches.  With this, Luminea allows for true interaction between the user and components which is essential for sensorial development.

Play is a necessary component in the development of sensory skills. There are a vast variety of toys and products available to enhance the development of play. In choosing the most appropriate toy or activity considering a child’s interest, developmental level, and skill areas you wish to target are key! 


Trunks! Adapted For Use Across All Ages & Abilities!

Sarah Glovasky, M.S., OTR/L

Trunks® is an engaging, interactive game developed by Diane Long, EdD, MOTR/L  and published by Therapro. Trunks® has gameplay challenges for all abilities!

How Do You Play?

In this game players move their bodies, make sounds and perform actions from memory! Gameplay involves picking an Action Memory Card and performing the action depicted. Six categories of actions are involved:

  • Musical You: Encourages creativity with motor actions that produce sounds.
  • Animal Sounds: Players mimic animal sounds.
  • Animal Motions: Players move their bodies and demonstrate how animals move.
  • Sound Like: Players recall and reproduce commonly heard sounds.
  • Pretend To: Encourages imagination as players pretend to be like someone else.
  • Show How: Involves a step-by-step demonstration of an action requiring the player to create an original sequence.

Trunks involves remembering and performing motor sequences. Players draw a card, look at the given action from the six categories previously mentioned, turn the card over and perform the action from memory. There are visual pictures as well as words on each card. On their next turn they would draw an additional card and perform both actions in their memory sequence, without looking at the cards. When an action is performed correctly, the player gets to keep their card and continue to work toward building a “trunk” (a series of 4 cards that, when combined, create an elephant’s trunk). 

The ability to perform individual actions may differ from child to child. Furthermore, the ability to memorize subsequent actions or sequences may vary as well. For this reason the game was created with many variations that afford enjoyable game play for all ability levels.

What Skill Area Does Trunks! Target?

Working Memory! Working Memory is a necessity for engaging in a variety of everyday occupations including learning, socializing and task completion. Sequencing naturally falls under the broader category of working memory.  Inherent to the game is the pairing of multi-modal forms of input (visual cues, reading cues, motor engagement, etc.). Read on to learn how to adapt and modify this game to target other skill areas! 

How Can Trunks Be Adapted?

Preschool. This game can be used to target motor planning development for kids in preschool. Choose a card from the deck and ask the kids to complete the action. Things like pretend to lift weights, leap like a frog, and pretend to lick a drippy ice cream cone are good activities to choose. You can also use the Sounds Like cards for the kids to use their voices to participate. This is also a great option when working on oral motor and language skill. What does a train sound like?, snort like a pig, and hoot like an owl are sounds that preschool kids should be able to perform. Having their peers guess the sounds and or actions turns it into a whole group game everyone can participate in. Pro Tip: Pre-picking cards targeting the specific skill or development level of the group is always a good idea! 

Early Elementary Age. Working memory develops as kids age. Building a trunk of 2-3 trunk cards can make the game achievable for the younger crowd. The pictures on the trunk cards are helpful for the non-readers at this age (which many of them are)! Again preselecting cards can be key. If you are working with students who are nonverbal, take the sound cards out. If you are working with children who have limits in mobility, take the jumping and balance cards out. Pro Tip: For students struggling with motor planning, pre-teach and practice the actions on the cards prior to the whole group activity to help bolster confidence!

Later Elementary and Beyond. Target teamwork, this can be a difficult skill for some! Have the kids build the entire trunk, working in teams or as a whole group. Pro Tip: If you need an additional challenge, have the players remember the sequence both forwards and then backwards!

Other Helpful Tips

  • Use as many trunk pieces or make as many trunks as you have time for! For a 10 min group use 2-3 pieces or just complete one trunk. If you have a longer amount of  time, make multiple trunks!
  • Use the extra action cards or don’t! You know the players best. Is the extra challenge needed or will it be too much?
  • Playing the game Trunks is a great opportunity for co-treatments! Physical therapists, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and teachers all have skills that can be worked on during this game!

Trunks is a great option for targeting many key skill areas. It’s versatility makes it a great choice for a wide range of ages and ability levels. Check out Therapro’s handy guide, Gear Up for Games, for more great game adaptations and modifications. 

Making April Autism ACCEPTANCE Month

Claire McCarthy

April brings the beginnings of warm weather. It brings more time spent outside and the return of the birds who went south for winter. It also brings Autism Awareness Month. Fundraisers are held for local and nationwide autism related organizations. Facebook and Instagram are full of memes, posts, stories, and quotes about autism. This is all great, but what happens on May 1st? What happens when the posts get buried under cute animal videos and the fundraising moves onto the next mission?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think awareness is wonderful. However, most of the world is very aware of autism now. They know organizations exist for it. There are plenty of tv shows and movies that portray autistic characters. We see autism in the news. What we need to be striving for is Autism Acceptance. We need to be striving for a world where autistic individuals are valued as community members, coworkers, and friends. A world that values and honors autism 365 days a year instead of 30.

To begin the move towards Autism Acceptance, there are some key terms we should know.

  • Neuro diversity: a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits
  • Neurodivergent: people who have diagnoses such as ADHD, autism, OCD, dyslexia, etc.
  • Neurotypical: individuals of typical developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities
  • Ableism: discrimination in favor of able-bodied or neurotypical people

Most of us on this blog are familiar with autism. For those who may not be, it is defined as “a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior”. It is deficit based. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the challenges seen in an autistic individual. However, let’s flip that around with a quote from NeuroTribes and define neurotypical: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity. There is no known cure.” Makes one think a little, doesn’t it?

To continue on a path of autism acceptance, we also need to target the myths around autism. One I hear all the time is, “S/he can’t be autistic. S/he speaks so well.” The DSM-5 and DSM-5-TR say nothing about verbal communication deficits in regards to autism. “Accompanying language impairment” can be added to an autism diagnosis, but having typical spoken language skills does NOT mean an individual is not autistic.

Another common misconception is that every child who receives an autism diagnosis must receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services and must be eligible for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) when they reach 3 years of age. Yes, ABA is one of the few evidence based autism specific teaching methods. This research dates back to the 1960s when autism rates were 1 in 2,500 people. This research was done on individuals that would be considered “low functioning” and often had accompanying Intellectual Disability. Autistic learners needs to be seen as individuals the same way that neurotypical learners are seen.

That last paragraph brings me to another issue that gets in the way of autism acceptance- functioning levels. Parents and therapists are so quick to get caught up in levels. Many people think that a functioning level can tell you all about the autistic individual. One of the problems with levels, though, is that it makes it harder to see past the diagnosis. When someone is diagnosed with “high functioning autism” people have a hard time understanding their challenges, honoring how hard that individual works day to day to appear high functioning, and sees less need for services. When someone is diagnosed with “low functioning autism” people don’t see their competence, assume lower intellectual capacity, and lower their expectations for the individual.

What can we do as therapists, parents, family members, and friends to change from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance? A simple place to start is to change our vocabulary. Try to ditch “red flags” or “symptoms” and replace them with “characteristics” or “learning profile.” Don’t be afraid to use “the A word” in your every day life. Talk about individuals being autistic the same way you would talk about someone wearing glasses or having black hair. Encourage children to ask questions about themselves or others. Using statements such as “don’t stare” or “mind your business” inadvertently tell children that what the autistic child or adult is doing is “wrong” or something to be ashamed of.

Along the lines of observing behaviors, remember that all behaviors serve a purpose. A tantrum or “noncompliance” is not the child being difficult or trying to upset an adult. They are letting us know they have had enough, do not understand what we are trying to do, or do not understand why we are trying to do something. Self-stimulating behaviors should not be a target in therapies. These are physical needs to self-regulate and make sense of a neurotypical world. The more an autistic individual suppresses the need to stim the more the individual will need to eventually “get it out” and it will likely be in a way that is not fun for them or others such as self-injurious behavior or a meltdown.

Some people may be reading this and thinking, “But what about all of the challenges? What about those who may never be able to live independently or have challenging behaviors day after day?” This blog is in no way saying that these challenges should be ignored. In fact, that would be just as ableist as saying the positive characteristics of autism should be ignored. What needs to be thought about is that we are not out there to “cure autism” or “teach a child to look typical.” We are out there to make an autistic person who has challenges become an autistic person with as little barriers in their life as possible.

One of the best things we can do is to listen to autistic voices. Autistic adults and children can teach us more about autism than any study or textbook can even begin to. Families who have loved ones with autism are also a wonderful resource. If it hasn’t been said clearly enough, the best thing to remember is that autistic individuals are just that- individual. They will all have different thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in regards to THEIR autism. Autism Acceptance begins with understanding that and valuing each individual for exactly who they are.