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When I was 8, my parents took my family to Disneyland. I remember meeting Disney princesses in my Snow White princess dress, being invited on stage to fight Darth Vader, and swallowing about a gallon of seawater trying to learn how to boogie board. It truly was the trip of a lifetime.
My mom is a very go-go-go type of person, so she pushed us from activity to activity, wanting to experience Disneyland to the fullest. My dad was the type of person who liked to stage large family photos (his special interest at the time was photography). Family photos often included me holding a screaming child, standing in the same place for an hour, and squint-smiling as the sun shone directly in my eyes.
Together they were an unstoppable duo of go-wait-go-wait, trying to get the most out of the money they spent during the 2008 recession. It’s easy to feel pressured to have the maximum amount of fun when you’re trying desperately to create a memory-forming experience.
At one point, my mom dragged me into the bathroom, begging me to use the toilets, but I sat down on the floor and cried. “It’s not scary,” she reassured me, but the looming monster of automatic toilets begged to differ. I had a meltdown on the bathroom floor, my mom frantically trying to calm me down while equally stressed parents passing by watched the unfolding “tantrum” with a judgemental look.
To me, it felt like the world was ending. I was hungry, tired, needed to pee, and my mom was trying to get me to use automatic toilets (how dare she?!). I was terrified of the noise and the abruptness. It had been a long-waged war between us to get me to use automatic toilets in public.
She flipped open her guidebook and tried to find toilets at Disneyland that weren’t automatic. She found one bathroom in all of Disneyland that didn’t have automatic toilets installed.
Our family ran down Main Street, rushing to get to the bathroom. I went in and did my business, relieved.
For the rest of the trip, we walked over to that bathroom regardless of where we were.
It’s funny looking back now because I was so obviously autistic. But back then, as recent as it is, girls (read AFAB) weren’t diagnosed with autism. I was just “quirky.”
My parents handled some of my autistic behaviors well, and others… not so much. If I could go back and give them a guide on what to do differently, here’s what I wish they would have known.
Learning sensory coping as an adult solved my “panic attacks” overnight.
What is sensory coping? Sensory coping is any sensory intervention that helps the person regulate sensory stimuli. This can be both the addition or removal of sensory experience.
One of the biggest “a-ha!” moments with sensory coping was realizing how vital oral stimulation is to help me regulate. It is one of the less acceptable ways of seeking sensation because of the association with childishness.
I sucked my thumb until I was 5. I would have done it longer, but my mom trained me out of it using aversives. “You’re too old to be sucking your thumb!”
When thinking about it critically though, what is the actual harm in children or adults using safe objects in their mouths to cope? Nothing really, it’s just not socially acceptable.
An autistic teenager I mentor chews on the rubber tires on his toys. His mom came to me in exasperation and said, “Why is he doing that?! How do I get him to stop?! He’s too old for that.”
I smiled and said, “If you want him to stop, give him something to chew on.” I helped her find a chew necklace on Amazon.
When considering sensory coping, you need to understand the person’s unique triggers, sensations they enjoy, and the type of sensation they naturally seek. Never force a sensation someone is expressing discomfort towards.
- Music. Everyone I’ve ever encountered has a type of music they like. Try cycling through different genres (even ones you don’t listen to)
- Ear plugs. Noise-cancelling headphones can be great during a meltdown or rising sensory-overstimulation. High fidelity ear plugs are great if you can’t stand bulky noise-cancelling headphones.
- ASMR can be enjoyable to some people
- White-noise or other non-content noise. One kid I knew liked standing next to the outdoor A/C units because he found the noise calming.
- Stop talking. Try communicating without speaking for a bit. I’ve heard this can be especially helpful for people who have selective mutism.
- SAFETY: Make sure to regularly sanitize chew toys/etc., especially during the pandemic. Keep them in a designated place when not in use and don’t let others touch them. Watch for items that can become choking hazards or that someone could injure themselves on if a part breaks off.
- Chewies – chew jewelry/chew toys. There are chew toys that exist that are meant to be subtle and ones that are different textures and materials. You can find them on Amazon or from autistic creators. One of my favorite autistic creators of subtle chew/fidget jewelry is The Divergent Minds Club.
- Safe objects – straws, pencils, clothing, toys, etc. I know it seems frustrating when you see your child chewing on objects, but it is serving a purpose. Give them designated items based on what they normally chew on if they don’t like chew toys. A friend of mine likes chewing on plastic straws because they’re a different texture than the silicone toys and keeps a few in their office.
- Ice – one warning is don’t chew ice (it’s bad for teeth) but sucking can provide a lot of sensory stimulation
- Baby Ice Teethers – if you like chewing ice, this is a great substitute
- Gum – have them choose the flavor. I really like the dessert flavors the Extra brand makes.
- Food that imitates inedible items – edible playdough, chocolate “dirt”, candy rocks
- Youtube videos – the videos marketed for “baby sensory”, “sand sensory”, “visually pleasing”, “surprisingly satisfying” can all be great places to look
- Hourglass, color, or “visual toys” – lava lamps, bubble hourglass, sand toys, kaleidoscopes, Jacob’s ladder, I Spy book, light toys, and color changing optic lights
- Projectors – there are fairly inexpensive light show projectors or you can easily make your own
- “Beer goggles” – the type of goggles used in high school classrooms to warn students against drinking and driving, or any glasses that distort the world
- Eye masks
- Simulating an odd perspective – fish eye lense, going somewhere high up, spinning, tutting
- Smart devices – you can get smart lights that are able to dim or change color and connect to smart home devices like Alexa
- Water, sand, and sensory tables
- Dancing, exercise/movement, trampolines
- Fidgets – I’m a big fan of this fidget toy set online or you can make your own.
- Squeezing – autism “steam-rollers” (though these are pricey), full body hugs, hand or foot massages, head squeezes (can be good in place of headbanging), using objects around like pushing your body against a wall
- Things to throw your body against – mats, beds, wearing a helmet, wrestling, punching bags, foam pits, diving
- Sensory swings – in my living room this looks like a hammock chair and stand (no screwing into the wall needed)
- Body suits
- Bodies of water – swimming, bathtub, etc.
- Weird/Pleasant textures – soft rugs/blankets, lotion, walking through the fabric aisle at Walmart, items that vibrate, smooth/bumpy items, temperatures (hand warmers or ice packs)
- Activities that keep your hands busy – knitting, baking, puzzles, video games, drawing, rubix cube
- “Safe space” – a small area that there’s a lack of stimulation or only pleasant tactile stimulation available
- “Medicinal Herb” – if legal and of age
Olfactory (Smell) Coping:
- Candles, incense
- Scratch and sniff stickers/markers
- Nose plugs – ones that you can still breathe through are usually less irritating
- Perfumes/lotions of a preferred scent
- Cooking fragrant foods – cookies, spicy foods, anything with cinnamon
- Scented toys – stuffed animals, bubbles, play dough,
- Essential oils – these can be put on diffuser necklaces to be worn around
- Scent diffusers
Hopefully, you find some of these suggestions for sensory coping helpful. Consider putting these things in a “coping kit”.
If my parents had been equipped with how to help me sensory cope, I likely wouldn’t have developed as severe of anxiety pre-diagnosis. Sensory coping is an essential part of understanding autism and should be a staple for every autistic kid. These are all things you can try at home, but if you are looking for professional help, Occupational Therapy can be a great way of learning how to cope with sensory issues. Some areas offer OT services to children and adults, so check your local resources.
Let me know which ideas you found most helpful! For more information on why sensory coping is important check out pt. 2.
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