4 of the Best Sensory Activities for Children with Autism in Child Care

April is Autism Awareness month and we are excited to share some ways to incorporate inclusive play into your daily routine as a child care provider or guardian. Sensory activities benefit all children but can be especially useful for children with Autism. People with Autism can be hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive to stimuli in their environment. For example, someone may feel uncomfortable and unable to focus because of the hum and flicker of fluorescent lights.

Sensory play activities help children build their self-regulation skills, learn to cope with big feelings associated with their senses, express themselves, and improve their attention span. We’ve put together a few simple sensory activities for children with Autism you can incorporate into your care facility or home!


Writing and Drawing with Shaving Cream

Shaving cream sensory activities for children with Autism

You can do this activity on windows or on your table. Squeeze a large amount of shaving cream on the surface and encourage your children to draw shapes, letters, or just smoosh the cream between their fingers. This activity can be done with shaving cream in a large plastic bag if you would like to avoid the mess!  

Alternate sensation: Try this activity with sheets of fine sandpaper for a rough sensation rather than smooth.  


Sift and Sort 

Sand sensory activities for children with Autism

Fill a large container with safe materials. Depending on the age group you work with you can use sand (crushed cheerios make a great safe “sand” option!), water, water beads, beans or lentils, rice, or even dry noodles. Then add in some other items that can be sifted out with hands or tongs. You can add buttons, puff balls, or small toys. If you currently have a theme or focus, you can align it for some extra fun. You can add similar toys like dinosaurs, underwater creatures, or cars 

Extension option: This is a great opportunity to encourage language in verbal children. Ask them to describe what they are sifting. How can they sort the objects? By color? By texture?  


Quiet Painting 

paint and art sensory activities for children with Autism

It can help students with sensitivities to light and sound to have time throughout the day for quiet and low light activities. Turn the lights down or off if possible. Maybe you can turn on some soft classical music and ask children to use whisper voices until the lights come back on. This is an opportunity to allow children to paint based on how the music makes them feel.  

Additional techniques: You can also paint with unique tools like car wheels, leaves and flowers from outside, marbles rolling across the paper, etc.  


Guess the Smell 

Smelling and olfactory sensory activities for children with Autism

Fill different containers with items that have strong smells. Coffee grounds, soap, flowers/lavender, peanut butter, apple, lemon, dirt, crayons, etc. make great smelling cups! Cover the container so the item can’t be seen until after they smell and guess. Help build vocabulary by describing the smells as bitter, sweet, sour, floral, and more.  

Modifications: If a child is nonverbal, provide pictures for them to point to when they identify the smell. For older children, a blindfold can be extra fun but it is best to ask for permission and provide alternates to a blindfold for all children. Finally, this activity can be parleyed into a smell and taste activity. With all food items, children can guess the smell and then taste and keep or tweak their guesses! 


Sensory play is a special opportunity to support children in developing coping skills and learning to manage anxiety. Activities like those mentioned above are a great way to incorporate sensory activities for children with Autism into your center time or free time. There are also a great number of sensory toys and  games that can be purchased or created to continue to build these skills in the children you work with.


Jess Templeman is a Project Manager for Child Development Services at ChildSavers. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education/Special Education (Pre-K through Grade 12) from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and her master’s degree in Special Education Leadership/Administration and Supervision from George Mason University in Northern VA. Jess taught special education in Fairfax County Virginia for 6 years and Coordinated Special Education services in Chesterfield County for 2.5 years before coming to ChildSavers in October 2019. In her current role, Jess supports the Virginia Infant Toddler Specialist Team and manages a number of special projects that aim to improve the quality of care provided to children birth to age 5 in the Central Virginia Region. She is certified in Pre-K CLASS Observation and CLASS certified Infant and Toddler Tools.

ChildSavers‘ team of child development experts provides training, technical assistance, and resources for child care providers across Virginia. We can support you with a broad range of training and professional development opportunities, including resources and training for providers caring for children with Autism and special abilities.

For additional information or to ask questions about ways you can incorporate sensory play into your daily routine, reach out to cdsupport@childsavers.org. In addition to training and coaching, we’ve created an online space for VA child care providers to connect on Facebook! Join our Child Development Services Facebook Group for daily tips and inspiration from our team and professionals like yourself. Feel free to share your tips for incorporating sensory activities for children with Autism into your everyday with our group!


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