Many autistic teens experience sensory processing differences. These can make it difficult for them to process and respond to sensory information in the same way that neurotypical teens do.
I am a clinical psychologist specialising in autism, and it runs in my family too. I work with children aged 5-18, most of whom are in mainstream school.
In this article I’d love to share with you some of my favourite sensory activities for autistic teenagers. I’ll also explain why these activities are so beneficial. The 10 I have chosen are both therapeutic and fun activities for autistic teenagers.
Let’s get started!
What Are Sensory Activities?
Sensory activities are activities that engage the senses, including sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, motion and balance.
They may be calming or stimulating, depending on the needs and preferences of the teen.
Sensory activities can be simple, such as listening to soothing music.
Or, they may involve a more complex set-up, such as a sensory circuit, described below.
Sensory activities can be used at home, in the classroom, or in therapy. They can be particularly beneficial for teens with a diagnosis of autism (autism spectrum disorder).
Autistic people regularly show differences in the way they process sensory information.
This means they may become easily overwhelmed or need more sensory stimulation than others.
Why Do Sensory Activities Help Autistic Teenagers?
Sensory activities can aid sensory integration and reduce anxiety and stress.
Sensory integration – the body’s ability to integrate all the information from external and internal sources – is really important for a child to develop a “sense of self”.
When a teen struggles to integrate the information coming in, they may feel a sense of detachment from the world around them.
When children with autism feel overwhelmed by their senses, the fight or flight response is triggered.
Below, I’ll describe the benefits of sensory activities in a number of different areas such as music, movement and crafting.
Depending on your teen’s interests, personality and sensory needs, they will be drawn to some activities more than others.
Sensory Integration Theory
In order to function well in our everyday lives, the brain needs to receive, process and integrate sensory information.
The theory, first proposed by Jean Ayres in the 1960s, suggests that difficulties with receiving and processing sensory information can cause problems in arousal levels.
The body receives sensory information from the environment and sends it to the brain. The brain registers this information and compares it to both other information coming in, and information stored in our memory.
The brain then uses all this information to decide how to respond appropriately.
Sensory information is important in every single aspect of everyday life, and normally occurs as part of normal development.
But when sensory integration doesn’t develop well, a child can easily become overwhelmed by sensory information, or require much more sensory information than would be expected, in order to make sense of the world.
In autistic children, sometimes sensory integration doesn’t develop in a typical way. Children may therefore become more sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding than their peers.
Let’s take a look at both of these in more detail.
Sensory Seeking in Autistic Teens
Sensory seeking behaviors may involve actively seeking out sensory stimulation, such as loud noises or strong smells.
Sensory seeking behaviors can be a way for autistic teens to regulate their sensory systems and manage their arousal levels. In other words, seeking out strong sensory information such as a strong taste can help a child stay alert and responsive.
Sometimes however, sensory seeking can be disruptive or challenging for others. It’s important for parents and teachers to work with autistic teenagers who have sensory issues.
We must understand their sensory needs and develop strategies to meet those needs in a healthy and appropriate way. This may involve providing structured sensory activities.
I give many examples below.
Sensory Avoiding in Autistic Teens
Sensory avoiding is when a child or young person actively avoids or withdraws from sensory experiences that they find overwhelming, uncomfortable or distressing.
This might be loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, or strong smells, for example.
They may also avoid environments that trigger these sensory experiences, such as crowded places, noisy environments, or certain clothing fabrics.
Sensory avoiding can have a negative impact on a teenager’s quality of life.
It can limit their ability to engage in social activities, or participate in certain activities at school.
This issue can also affect the families of autistic teens, because it can mean they have to be more cautious about the family activities, outings or holidays they choose.
Some families feel that avoiding stressful situations for their teen leads to a very limited lifestyle. It can be hard for many families to try new things.
Sensory avoiding is different from sensory seeking behavior, where an individual actively seeks out certain types of sensory input, often to the point of overstimulation.
Sensory Processing Disorder in Teenagers
When children can’t effectively process, organise and respond to sensory information, they are described as having sensory processing disorder if the level of severity is having a significant impact on their lives.
A high proportion of autistic people also have sensory processing disorder (SPD). However, it is possible to have SPD without autism.
People of all ages can have SPD but tends to be more common in children.
In adults the symptoms often appear milder because they have learned ways to better manage their sensory needs in different situations.
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Sensory Activities for Autistic Teenagers
1. Sensory Circuit
A sensory circuit is a set of activities and exercises designed to engage the senses and provide a calming and soothing environment for children with autism.
Here’s how you can create a sensory circuit at home:
Identify your child’s needs. If your child seems fidgety, restless or lethargic they need stimulating activities which can regulate their alertness. If they are highly stressed, anxious or overwhelmed they need calming, soothing activities.
Gather materials and ideas: Collect a variety of materials that will appeal to your teenager’s senses. This might include a yoga ball, weights, “push-ups” against a wall, or wrapping themselves tightly/rolling in a blanket. Experiment with different activities. Every child’s needs are different.
Plan the circuit: Arrange the materials and activities in a circuit. Experiment with different activities and try them in a different order until you get something that works for your child. Generally, sensory circuits last 5-15 minutes. They should be short enough that your child can complete the circuit at least once as part of their daily activities. The idea is that this becomes a habit over time, incorporated into a healthy daily routine. The sensory circuit can be particularly beneficial when used before or after school.
Set up the circuit in a room where your teen can move freely and safely. The circuit should be easy to access and easy to follow, but it’s likely you’ll want to put any equipment to one side after each use.
Next, personalize it. Encourage your child to personalize their circuit by adding items or activities that they find calming or interesting. This is the best way to make them feel connected with the circuit and more likely to use it.
The benefits of a sensory circuit for autistic children can be:
- Sensory stimulation: The sensory circuit stimulates the child’s senses in a controlled and safe environment.
- Calming effect: The sensory circuit can provide a calming and soothing environment, reducing stress and anxiety levels.
- Improving motor skills: Manipulating and exploring the items in the sensory circuit can help to improve fine and gross motor skills, core strength, balance and co-ordination.
- Encourage exploration: Sensory circuits can encourage children to explore and discover the materials and activities, which can help to improve their cognitive and problem-solving skills.
2. Sensory Bottle as a Sensory Activity for Teens
A sensory bottle is a bottle filled with different materials. It’s simple but it can provide a calming and engaging sensory experience for autistic children.
Here’s how you can create a sensory bottle with your teen:
Choose a bottle: Select a clear plastic bottle with a tight-fitting lid. It could be a water bottle or even a plastic container.
Gather materials. Collect different materials that appeal to your teenager’s senses. For example, glitter, beads, and miniature toys, small shells or marbles.
Fill the bottle about 3/4 of the way with the materials. Then add water or oil (or a mix) to create a moving effect. You can also add food coloring.
Next, seal the bottle. Close the lid tightly and make sure it is secure.
Finally, decorate the outside (optional). Your child can personalize the bottle by decorating it with paint, stickers, or other craft materials.
This simple activity is perfect for older kids as well as younger children.
You may be surprised how beneficial simple sensory play activities like this can be for your teenager when they need to feel regulated.
It’s a good idea to build up a mix of simpler and more complex sensory activities for your teen to choose from.
3. Sensory Box
A sensory box is a collection of items that are designed to engage the senses and provide a calming and soothing environment for individuals with autism.
Here are the steps to create a sensory box for your autistic teenager:
First of all, gather the materials. It’s vital that your teen takes the lead in this process.
Only they know what helps them feel regulated.
Collect a variety of items that will appeal to the teenager’s senses. Examples include:
- A square of soft fabric;
- Small objects or toys with different textures;
- Fidget spinners / fidget cubes / fidget set / other “fidget items” or sensory toys;
- Scented candles (only if your child’s sensory box is used at home rather than school);
- Stretchy materials;
- Mindful coloring materials;
- A playlist of calming or stimulating music.
Next, help your child select a container for their sensory box. It could be a plastic container, a box, or a basket. Place the items you have gathered into the container.
If the box will be used at home, consider adding a soft light, such as a string of fairy lights or a small lamp, to create a calming ambience for your teen.
Encourage your teenager to add to their sensory box over time with items they find calming or interesting. Over time the idea is that the sensory box becomes part of your child’s “sensory regulation toolkit”.
Many children find it helpful to have a sensory box at school. School can be an overwhelming and anxiety-provoking environment for so many teens. Use of a sensory box needs to be negotiated in advance with school staff.
The sensory box needs to be kept in a safe place that is accessible only to your child, such as the learning support room or nurture room.
There should be an agreement in place, known to all staff, about how and when your child will access the sensory box when they need to.
Overall, a sensory box can be a great idea for regulating autistic teenagers, providing them with a safe and controlled environment to explore and engage with different sensory experiences and improve their overall well-being.
Sensory boxes are often thought to be suitable only for young children but I have personally seen the amazing benefits they can have for teens too.
4. Sensory Activities for Teens: Nature Walk
Walking in nature can benefit autistic children in many ways. The sounds, smells and movement of nature offer a calming and soothing experience, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels in autistic children and teens.
Walking on an uneven surface (not to mention jumping on logs, or rolling down hills!) provides vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (awareness of the body) feedback which helps regulate the nervous system.
The range of activities kids can discover whilst on a walk is endless!
Of course, outdoor activities are a great way to improve physical health, giving an opportunity for children to get exercise and fresh air. The natural environment also provides many opportunities for children to explore and discover, which helps to improve their cognitive and problem-solving skills.
Finally walking in nature with others also brings social and emotional benefits for the whole family. It’s an opportunity for bonding and shared positive experiences between family members.
5. Video Games as Sensory Activities for Teens
Bear with me here. You may have mixed feelings about gaming, but video games can actually be a regulating sensory activity for autistic children.
Games can provide a predictable environment where your autistic teenager feels in control.
They can engage at their own pace.
The repetitive and predictable nature of gaming can be soothing for the nervous system.
Obviously, this depends on the game and some games be be highly over-stimulating. The best games for autistic teenagers are those which are gentle and don’t require your child to get to a fixed point before saving their progress.
Spend time observing and chatting with your teen about their choice of games. Think about the colours, sounds and length of the game, and what will be most beneficial for your child.
One great game which seems to provide positive stimulation and creativity without over-stimulating the senses is Minecraft.
Video games have the advantage of helping to improve fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and cognitive development such as problem-solving and decision-making.
They can also offer a sense of accomplishment and success, which can be beneficial for autistic teens who struggle with self-esteem and self-worth.
Computer games can provide what feels like a safe way for autistic teenagers to explore and interact with the world. However, of course the boundaries around screen use and online safety need to be carefully managed for your child to have a balanced lifestyle.
If gaming is one of your child’s special interests, there is a danger it can become obsessive and “crowd out” essential parts of a healthy lifestyle such as regular healthy meals, time outdoors and plenty of sleep.
6. Musical Instruments or Garage Band: Musical Sensory Activities for Teens
Learning a musical instrument is one of the more complex sensory experiences, and only works if your child is motivated, but it can offer so many sensory benefits.
It provides gentle sensory stimulation through the feeling of the instrument in their hands, the movement of their fingers and hands, the sound of the instrument, and the visual cues of sheet music.
Learning an instrument provides a rhythm and repetitiveness which can be calming and meditative for the nervous system. The fact that this is controlled by the teenager themselves, makes it the perfect self-regulating sensory activity.
For example, if your teen is feeling tense, they may choose to play a relaxing, quiet piece. If they have strong emotions they may choose to express them through a forceful, loud piece of music.
In addition to the sensory benefits, musical instruments can help children improve their fine motor skills including dexterity and coordination.
One huge benefit of playing music is that it can help children improve their attention and focus.
It also gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride, and a fantastic opportunity for creativity and self-expression.
On top of all these benefits there can be social benefits too. Playing a musical instrument can be done with friends and family, encouraging social interaction and bonding.
If your child doesn’t play a physical instrument, the app GarageBand is an excellent alternative for creating music with many of the same benefits for autistic teenagers.
GarageBand allows teens to create and record their own music using virtual instruments and different sounds, combining different parts to build an overall effect. This can provide a positive sensory experience as they explore different sounds and create their own compositions.
Although making their own music is such a beneficial sensory experience, there are many other excellent ways that music can be used to benefit autistic teens.
For example, developing their own playlists to help them manage different emotional states and moods.
Not only are they learning self-expression and self-regulation, but it can be so much fun.
7. Cooking or Baking Activities
Cooking and baking can be beneficial sensory activities for autistic teenagers as they provide a structured environment for your teen to engage with different textures, smells, and flavours.
Processes like measuring ingredients, mixing and kneading dough, noticing the change in consistency as they pour water, and watching the change in texture and colour of food as it cooks can be calming and satisfying.
Cooking and baking can also help to improve hand-eye coordination, and develop cognitive abilities like following instructions and problem-solving skills.
Baking a cake or cooking a meal provides a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. It’s also one way for teens to express their creativity and independence, by experimenting with new recipes in a creative way.
Making meals might also be an opportunity to for low-pressure social interaction with family members and friends.
8. Knitting, Crocheting or Stitching as Sensory Activities for Autistic Teenagers
Knitting, crocheting, and stitching can be beneficial sensory activities for autistic teenagers for several reasons. I know many autistic teenagers who enjoy crafting as a soothing activity, and who do it alongside friends as a structured and low pressure way on interacting.
These activities give us a variety of textures and sensations, such as the feeling of yarn or thread, the movement of the hands, and the sound of the needles or hook moving.
The repetitive movements involved in knitting and crochet can be particularly soothing and regulating to the nervous system.
Of course, just like the other creative activities I have recommended, knitting, crochet and stitching also build our dexterity and coordination, concentration and focus.
Completing a knitting, crocheting, or stitching project can provide a fantastic sense of accomplishment and pride for your teenager. It’s an opportunity for them to express their creativity by choosing different colors, patterns, and designs.
9. Sensory Activities for Teens: Climbing
Indoor climbing is particularly popular with the autistic young people on my caseload. There seems to be something soothing about the repetitive nature of this fun activity.
In many ways it’s also the ideal activity in terms of social interaction for autistic teens.
There will be limited opportunities for interaction alongside other climbers, but everyone is focused on the activity, and there are rarely large groups all climbing together.
This tends to make it a more controlled and manageable level of interaction for autistic kids.
Climbing can be a beneficial activity for autistic teens for so many reasons. It’s a fun way to experience physical exertion.
It improves physical health, muscle strength, gross motor skills and coordination.
It requires children to think strategically and plan their next move, which can improve problem-solving skills.
Climbing also gives teens a direct sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing like completing a difficult climb!
The sensory stimulation that climbing provides unbeatable sensory stimulation that can be life-changing for some autistic teens. The feeling of the rock or wall, the movement of the body, and the sensation of height can provide a variety of regulating sensory experiences.
Many climbing gyms can adapt the difficulty of the routes to the children’s level and skills, so it’s a great activity for all ages and abilities.
10. Swinging: A Therapeutic Activity for Autistic Teenagers
Swinging is one of those fun activities that older kids and adults sometimes feel they are “too old” for.
This is absolutely not the case.
If swinging feels good, we should do it! (That’s why I have an outdoor yoga trapeze which I love to swing on.)
Swinging is one of the most popular activities amongst the autistic children I work with. It helps regulate and strengthen the body’s vestibular system. It’s a highly therapeutic activity for autistic teenagers.
This system helps us react to objects around us and to gravity, and is concerned with balance.
Sometimes autistic children’s vestibular systems don’t communicate very well with the other parts of their body.
Problems with the vestibular system are thought to be caused by differences in the inner ear.
Swinging – on an outdoor swing, a hammock or an indoor swing – can provide repetitive movement that helps make us feel safe. It also serves to strengthen the vestibular system.
A rocking chair can also provide similar feedback.
If You Need Further help
If you think your child has unmet sensory needs (e.g. they get easily overstimulated or they seem under-stimulated), it’s very important to develop an understanding of their sensory profile.
For example, which of their senses gets too easily overstimulated?
Which of their senses needs more stimulation than they are getting at the moment.
This knowledge will help you adapt their environment. I recommend a book called No Longer A Secret: Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges by Doreit S. Bialer and Lucy Jane Miller. This will help develop your knowledge and understanding further.
Occupational therapists are specialists in movement and sensory processing. Your child may need an occupational therapy (assessment) to help fully identify their sensory needs.
In the UK, you can find an OT using the Royal College of Occupational Therapists website.
If you are outside the UK, speak to your family doctor, who may be able to recommend a local OT. Your child’s school may also have a “link OT” or an OT service they work closely with.
Sensory Activities For Autism: Summary
Engaging in sensory activities can be incredibly beneficial for autistic teenagers. These activities should provide sensory stimulation, aid sensory integration, and support your teenager’s overall wellbeing.
Autistic teenagers often experience differences in processing sensory information, and these therapeutic sensory activities can help them regulate their sensory systems, manage anxiety, and improve their quality of life.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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