for the child with autism
Sensory Integration in the Religious Education Classroom-Sensory
Integration For the Child With Autism in the Religious Education Classroom
By Dr. Karla Kay Akins
Dr. Akins presented this document at the Indiana Autism Society conference
on November 4, 2000. Her topic was "Autism and Worship: How Churches
Can Support Families Living with Autism." She has twin sons, age
5, with autism.
These suggestions apply just as readily to secular environments.
Printed with permission.
The great thing about accommodating a child with Autism in your classroom
is that these changes will benefit everyone! All kids can benefit from
Sensory Integration techniques and activities. Not only will they benefit,
but they will also become better learners, have increased attention spans,
and remember what they learn!
Here are a few examples of things you can do to increase Sensory Integration
experiences into your curriculum.
Begin your class with a guided multi-sensory activity. Simply allowing
"free play" at the beginning of class is a stressful way for
children with Autism to make the transition from leaving their parent/caregiver
to becoming part of your group. Have materials out on the table, ready
for all children, and that are easy to do without supervision.
Ask the parent before the classes begin what their childs favorite activities
are, and find a way to work them into this transitional moment.
Try to come up with an unusual way to do "regular" activities.
Ask your students for ideas!
When you plan table activities, be aware that modifications will need
to be made for the children who are sensitive to touch. Materials such
as paper maché, glue, finger paints, clay, etc., may cause the
child to have a negative response. Encourage the use of tools.
Since two of my students have a fascination with transportation toys,
I allow them to paint with them and do clay with them. They simply drive
their toy cars through the paint that I apply to their paper, or use their
toy cars to shape the clay.
Visual cues are very important. I cannot stress this enough. Everything
in the room should have a picture explaining its use and purpose. On the
tables the students work at, use a picture symbol of a person sitting
Put pictures on containers of items of what belongs in the container.
Place these same pictures on the shelves where the containers are kept.
This is very soothing and welcoming to a child with Autism.
Order and predictability are very important, because the primary emotion
in Autism is fear. These visual cues help them predict the purposes of
their environment, and remove the fear of the unknown. Also, the use of
a picture schedule, and pictures or the childs name taped to the floor
of where he or she is to sit during circle time is very important.
Again, predictability helps the child with Autism function smoothly and
without fearfulness and stress. The more you can inform the child with
Autism about his environment and what is going to happen next, the more
success you will have behaviorally.
A "safe place" in the room is an excellent tool for the over-stressed
student. Providing a quiet time place will help the over aroused child
to calm himself and will prevent a full-blown tantrum (I call these meltdowns!
If youve ever seen one, youd know what I mean!)
A few signs that a child is over aroused might include self-injury, poking
at others, loud outbursts, inappropriate giggling (just to name a few.)
Ask the caregiver what cues and clues their child might give to show he
or she needs a break from the rest of the group.
The "quiet place" should be an area that is off by itself,
such as a little table with a cloth over it so the child can go inside,
or a reading corner with a beanbag chair or rocking chair to sit on. Create
a wonderful space for the over-stimulated child to escape to.
Many people with Autism have a difficult time filtering out extraneous
noises. Using a carpet on the floor will help to minimize these sounds.
And if you know that a loud noise is coming, it is wise to warn the student
I am always amazed that childrens classrooms are usually full of bright
posters and wall hangings! That is the American cultures interpretation
of what children like! When in fact many children, not just children with
Autism, are completely distracted by all the visual stimulation. A wise
educator, who wants the attention of their students, will keep bulletin
boards, wall hangings, and brightly colored walls to a minimum.
Encouraging help at clean up time is a great way for the child with Sensory
Integration issues to use their big muscles. Asking these kids to carry
heavy chairs or books helps their brain to organize and also has a calming
effect on the nervous system. (It also keeps the room looking good!)
Allow your children with Autism to be classroom helpers. This will give
them more opportunities for the movement that many of these kids crave.
Erasing the blackboard, washing tables, and running errands are a few
Never punish a child with Autism who seeks out movement by taking away
an outdoor playtime. This will only increase fidgeting and outbursts.
These kids need to MOVE.
For circle and group activities, try providing beanbag chairs or individual
rugs so that the student with Autism understands where his position is
in space. This provides him with a physical boundary. If the child is
young or has even more difficulty understanding where his "space"
is, the use of a box to sit in works well.
My son, Isaac, needed this visual boundary at first. A rug or a taped
area was not clear enough for him. So his teacher used a banana box with
colored paper on the inside. Miraculously, Isaacs behavior improved during
circle time 100%.
These kids need visual and physical boundaries. Its our duty to provide
Begin your circle activities with an activity that includes jumping.
Jumping helps increase the brains organization and postural control.
If the child is poking and hitting during circle or table time, allow
him to hold an object in his hands, color, write, or manipulate a toy.
I find that for all children, more specifically busy boys, allowing them
to do these activities increases their attention spans and retention.
Koosh balls are very popular for this purpose. Other ideas include a balloon
filled with rice, flour, or sand; soft squeezable balls — anything thats
Better than simply manipulating a toy or object, try to make all your
"story times" interactive. For example, if your story is about
the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, dont just tell the story, use three-dimensional
objects to do the telling! Get some Fisher Price little people and have
the children manipulate them across a "sea" of saran wrap on
the table. Make play-dough trees and some fish to put in the water. Think
outside the box!
Use your imagination! And dont think that older kids dont benefit from
this type of activity. In my eighteen years of teaching, I have learned
that even teens enjoy these types of lessons the best!
Do not limit your teaching space to one table or area. For the typical
American child, I estimate their attention span to be about one minute
per their age. And I am probably being generous in my estimate. If I am
teaching five year olds, I need to change activities about every five
This takes a lot of preparation on the part of the teacher, but preparation
means less behavior issues. If I experience problems with behaviors in
my classrooms, I point to myself first.
- How prepared was I?
- Were we too long in this activity?
- Did I provide enough three-dimensional visual cues/stimulation?
Ask yourself these types of questions when preparing for your next lesson.
Change where you are working frequently. Why have just one place for
circle? Why not have a singing place, a story place, and a praying place?
Divide activities up so that you are doing something different about every
five to ten minutes in a different spot.
Work with the wiggles, not against them. Allow kids of all abilities
to stand rather than sit. Some kids just do better standing.
Also, why not allow them to work on the floor on their stomachs? You
can also put bungee cords around the legs of chairs to provide a sensory
input that will assist a child to stay seated longer, if table work is
required for any length of time. Partially inflated air pillows work well
for kids to sit on, too. They allow for a certain amount of wiggling that
isnt distracting and disruptive.
Ask yourself these questions when preparing your lesson:
- Have I provided something the children can smell?
- Have I provided something the children can taste?
- Have I provided something the children can see clearly?
- Have I provided something the children can feel with their hands?
- Have I provided something the children can hear clearly without extra
- Have I provided a clear picture schedule?
- Do I have enough activities to allow the children plenty of experiences
without running out of things to do? (Remember, too much free time can
be very frustrating and increase negative behaviors in kids of all abilities.)
Will my students with Autism be able to participate in these activities?
How can I change them to allow them to do so?
After some time, and some successful classes, you will discover that
accommodating the child with Autism has made you a better teacher! Your
imagination will be stimulated, and the possibilities and variations in
your lessons will make the learning experiences for the students even
© 2000 Dr. Karla Kay Akins For more information about Sensory Integration
visit the Sensory Integration Network on-line at http://www.sinetwork.org/.
You can contact Dr. Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org.