When I used to work in an autism clinic, my coworker (who was a very even-keeled cognitive behavior therapist who worked with adults) always teased me that all he could hear coming from my treatment room was “ONE, TWO, THREE, BUBBLESSSSSS!” Or, sometimes, "READY, SET....BALLOON!!!"
I can still be heard counting down to bubbles, balloons, and tickles in families’ homes across the south. It’s not that I love bubbles this much, that I want the kids to learn to count to three, or even that I wanted to annoy my coworker. It’s something else altogether.
When we add something like a countdown, chant, or song before we do something really fun with our kids, we turn our play into a sensory social routine. This opens up all sorts of wonderful opportunities for our kids with autism to learn and connect.
Building anticipation. When we have a predictable routine, our kids can build anticipation and excitement about the final step. Rather than just tickling a child, I might say, “I’m going to tickle your….tummy! I’m going to tickle your…feet!” Now it’s less of an activity between my hands and their ticklish feet, and more of an activity between me and the child that they can get excited about.
Language and Communication. Having a predictable routine gives our kids the opportunity to request for the routine to continue. If I’ve been chanting “ONE, TWO, THREE, BUBBLES!!” for long enough, the child is going to start expecting bubbles after the countdown! But if, one day, I say “ONE, TWO, THREEEEE….” And don’t do anything, they might glance towards my face as if to say, “Are you going to blow more?” or even say “bubbles!” When any of these things happen I’ll blow more bubbles right away. Now they’ve learned the power of communication (even if it’s just a quick glance towards me)! We can work on refining this into some really great requesting.
Imitation. Sensory-social routines are fun, predictable, and repeated. This gives our kids a great opportunity to try them out themselves!
Turn taking. The natural back-and-forth of sensory-social routines can help lay the foundation for turn taking in both play and conversation.
Joint attention. Joint attention is when a child shows interest in what you’re looking at, or when they try to get you to look at what they see. Sensory social activities are built around shared enjoyment and interest. There are so many opportunities to point (“Look, a bubble!”) or for a child to point or look at something to get your attention.
Fun and connection. Playing and laughing together is how we bond. Sensory social activities are so much fun!
My favorite sensory-social routines for young kids are (you might have guessed) bubbles and balloons with a “1-2-3” or a “ready-set-go” countdown!
But you know your kid best. I’ve seen families have incredible success with 1-2-3 spin or ready-set-swing. I also love tickle, I’m-gonna-get-you, and songs that let you bounce or rock along with your child.
To create successful sensory social routines for your child, try the following:
Choose activities your child is likely to enjoy. Think about their interests: do they love to look at things, touch things, move their bodies? You can turn any of these into a fun sensory-social activity!
Make your voice and face big, fun, and animated to capture your child’s attention. Try to be really present with your child and show authentic excitement.
If your phone buzzes, try ignoring it during sensory social play! Research shows that play interrupted by cell phones is much less effective than uninterrupted play.
Once you’ve found a predictable routine that your child enjoys, do it together lots of times.
Keep expanding to teach your child a range of sensory-social routines. Ask your OT or speech therapist how you can use the routines to help with play, communication, and social engagement.
ONE, TWO, THREE..........PLAY!!
If you are a therapist looking for more strategies to help you teach play to your young clients with autism, I have a training for you! Check out my mini-training on teaching play.