Why are somatosensory activities important for children with autism?

Why are somatosensory activities important for children with autism?

One of the primary things we emphasize for children on the autism spectrum or who struggle with delayed development is body awareness and increasing somatosensory awareness.  While many parents and therapists may first think of language or cognitive development when a child’s development is challenging, the first essential area to focus on is somatosensory development, or how they perceive their body.

Somatosensory is a set of senses that recognizes and interprets sensations from the skin, muscles, joints, and internal organs and generally refers to touch, temperature, pain, balance, and proprioception. With this set of senses, children discover, learn, and develop in the world, from the moment they meet their parents to every step they take as they walk and run.

The core of somatosensation is the complex connection between sensation, perception, and the transfer of information. From the moment a child is born, their sensory receptors receive myriad stimuli, and each touch, movement, and pressure sends signals along neural pathways to the brain. These sensations and experiences shape how a child interacts with the environment and make sense of the world around them. This is the process of getting to know the world and learning.

One of the most profound ways somatosensory influences development is through its impact on motor skills (movement). As infants begin exploring their surroundings, somatosensory feedback improves motor control, allowing them to reach, grasp, crawl, and walk confidently. As tactile sensations become more affluent, the brain’s understanding of body position, movement, and spatial relationships improves, laying the foundation for developing gross and fine motor skills.

Somatosensory awareness isn’t just limited to physical movement; it also plays an important role in developing body awareness and understanding its capabilities. Through tactile, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic feedback, children learn to navigate their bodies in space and develop a sense of self and agency that forms the basis of identity and autonomy.  It’s also a gateway to social interaction and emotional regulation. From the comforting hug of a trusted loved one to the fun but somewhat rough behavior of a peer, touch plays a central role in human relationships, fostering the bonds of attachment and empathy essential for healthy social development. The ability to regulate one’s emotions is closely linked to the ability to regulate somatosensory input, and over- or under-reactivity to touch and movement can make self-regulation and emotional expression difficult.

Parents can give their children a solid foundation to navigate the world by recognizing the importance of somatosensory input and supporting its development.  The world is full of sensations.  If a child cannot comfortably sense the world as it is, they will challenged in development.  This applies to all aspects of life, not only for young children but also for young adults. As parents or caregivers, we must embrace the incredible power of a warm touch, movement, and delivery sensation; we can teach our children what it means to be a living human being. What’s more important now is to create an environment where children can constantly be in contact, touch, and motion rather than practice writing or doing math worksheets sitting on a chair.

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