Whether you’re a therapist or the parent of a child with autism, you know that sensory play is of vital importance. Sensory activities—those activities that engage the five senses and feature a hands-on component—are crucial to helping children with autism grow, learn and get comfortable in their environment. Additionally, sensory play helps children develop language skills, social skills, fine and gross motor skills, dramatic play, scientific reasoning and self-control. On top of that, of course, sensory play is fun, and that’s important for kids of all ages and abilities!
When it comes to sensory play for kids with autism spectrum disorder, few activities stack up to crafts. Working with art supplies in an exploratory environment can help children discover new textures, sounds and colors while building motor skills through activities like painting, drawing, cutting or folding. Additionally, sensory art is perfect for kids who fall anywhere along the spectrum because it’s so adaptable. You can think of a specific project or craft as the framework of the activity and customize and tweak to your specific child.
Finding the Right Sensory Crafts for Your Child
With that being said, not all crafts, games or activities are right for all kids. Your child may be hypersensitive, under-responsive or show signs of sensory processing disorder (SPD). That means that crafts and activities should be designed at an appropriate level of sensory stimulation that engages without causing the child to feel overwhelmed. Of course, this will vary from one child to the next, but the following activities tend to be very well-received by children at all sensitivity levels.
The Top Sensory Crafts for Kids with Autism
- Sensory Bottles—Sensory bottles are water bottles (preferably reusable ones or thick ones, like VOSS bottles) filled with water or mineral oil and then packed with sensory-stimulating stuff, such as glitter, beads, gemstones, feathers, magnets or sand (or anything else that looks cool or entertaining in liquid). There are many benefits here, from the sensory stimulation of making them to the final result, which can serve as a calming or self-regulating tool. Here’s how to make them.
- Homemade Slime—Homemade slime slash silly putty is one of the original sensory crafts! It offers a unique visual and touch-based experience that engages kids with a wide range of sensory response levels. Plus, you can customize it so it suits your specific child with different colors and textures or by adjusting the sliminess. Extra bonus points: You can usually make homemade slime with stuff you already have around the house, like craft glue and liquid starch. Here’s how to make it.
- Diamond Painting—Diamond art painting is a new kind of paint-by-numbers-style craft that involves placing small, colorful gems on a pre-templated canvas. If you’re totally new and asking yourself, “what is diamond painting,” you can learn more here. Diamond painting for kids and pre-teens with autism is ideal, for painting with diamonds stimulates a sense of touch while creating an intriguing visual result. What we love about this kind of craft is it provides gentle guidelines for children who may have difficulty in open-ended play. It also comes in a limitless number of designs, so you can find one tailored to your child’s interests or preferences. Here’s how to do it, and here’s some of the .
- Finger Painting—Finger painting is a great introductory sensory craft for young children who may not have tried any artistic endeavors yet. We recommend painting with latex gloves to help introduce hypersensitive children to finger painting (and to make it less messy). For even less mess, consider trying mess-free finger painting that involves exploring paint and colors through Ziploc bags. The result is a unique sensory experience that stimulates sight and touch.
- Blow Paint—You might remember blow paint from art class in grade school. This classic arts and crafts activity involves creating beautiful works of art by blowing paint through straws. Kids enjoy seeing the paint splatter while also experiencing the unique physical and sensory sensations of blowing it through the straw. Have your little ones see how many unique shapes or pictures they can make with a single straw, some paint and a few pieces of blank paper. Here’s how to do it.
- Homemade Play Dough—Play dough is a simple and appealing option for a wide range of sensory activities. But sensory dough goes far beyond the typical thick, malleable colored dough from the toy store. Sensory dough can take many forms—edible, foam, scented, fizzy, slimy. Bloggers, therapists and experimental parents around the world have come up with tons of fun, homemade sensory recipes you can find so that this one never gets boring. Here are some great options.
- Marbled Prints—Marble painting is a great way to engage kids using stuff you already have lying around the house. It involves filling a shallow container with shaving cream and then dropping and swirling paint on top. The swirling is a part of the activity and can be fun for little ones to watch and try themselves. To create artwork you can keep forever, have your child dip a piece of paper into the container and scrape off the excess colored shaving cream. Voila! You have your own marbled masterpiece. Here’s how to do it.
- Rainbow Tissue Paper Snail—Tissue paper is always a crowd-pleaser among children who respond well to visuals and who are OK with its soft, airy texture. This adorable rainbow tissue snail craft involves piecing together a rainbow of colorful tissue paper squares and adorning a cute snail cutout (googly eyes optional) for an adorable creation you’ll cherish forever. Here’s how to do it.
Explore and Adapt with Your Child
Remember: Not all activities are appropriate for all kids. Autism spectrum disorder, as you know, encompasses a very broad spectrum. That means that what appeals to and stimulates one child with autism may alienate or overwhelm another. Just as you want your child to explore and adapt with an open mind, you must do the same when finding activities that work for them! Experimenting with different crafts over a period of time will help you find enjoyable activities that excite and engage your unique child.