For many autistic children, getting used to the feelings triggered when their bodies, or at least part of them, move can be tricky. Even doing something simple like walking up a step or closing a door can cause sensory stimulation that, even after the thousandth time, feel a little odd or even unnerving.
This feeling is called proprioception and occurs whenever your body is pushing or pulling something. In autism circles, anything where the body pushes or pulls is simply known as ‘heavy work’.
Its name might give the impression of being hard to do, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, it can be therapeutic for autistic children, helping them feel calmer and prepared for the day ahead.
Children who have sensory processing issues involving moving and touching – finding it difficult to do both – will find heavy work really useful, but what is it for and why does it work?
What does it involve?
Heavy work involves pushing and/or pulling in many different ways that can be fun and expend any excess energy. For autistic children, it can help to release any feelings of tension, anxiety or frustration, whilst getting them used to the sensory aspect of moving around.
It can be performed just about anywhere and at any time. On a weekday morning just before school, during their lunch break, after school or just before they go to bed – so long as they’re awake and in the right frame of mind, a little heavy work can be really helpful.
If heavy work activities are done regularly, say once or twice a day, then it could give your kids some routine. As some parents will no doubt tell you, a little routine can help to put a child’s mind at ease!
What are the benefits?
Using heavy work can help to make it easier for your kids to touch and move. When they’re, say, carrying something with them to school, heavy work exercises can make it easier for them to get used to it.
It also helps to reduce the risk of autistic children experiencing meltdowns if their sensory issues begin to flare up. If you’re an autistic child, there are few things worse than sensory overload, particularly for those who don’t like to touch certain things or be touched.
Heavy work can also help to introduce a little routine into their lives. If your child is performing the same heavy work exercise(s) every day at around the same time, it helps to give their days a little more structure and certainty, helping to reassure them that everything is going to be fine.
To work properly, such activities should be done following other sensory input. This could be through playing a piece of music, turning a light on or gently hugging your child; whatever they’re more likely to respond to in a positive way and most comfortable with.
Heavy work activities
There are many types of activity that can be classed as heavy work. Many of them don’t involve much actual work; they’re just everyday things that can help to keep their feet firmly on the ground. Here, we pick a few that are easy to do and more likely to work for your child.
- Carrying a small bag of groceries. This could be done on a weekend when you’re doing the weekly shop at your local supermarket
- Carrying their lunchbox or school backpack on the way to school. This is something your child could do every weekday without it being too heavy
- Stacking things like books, magazines, tins of food or boxes – done after a day at school, this can be quite therapeutic and, for younger kids, could also help them with counting and hand-to-eye coordination
- Wearing weighted clothing. Available from specialist shops online, vests, shorts, trousers, shoes and even hats with a little extra padding, worn whilst walking around, can help your child to feel secure and grounded
- Sleeping with a weighted blanket or an extra layer on top of their duvet
- Pushing a door or window open – this can be done every day. Your child could do this to let you into a room of the house. You do need to prompt them by knocking on the door and/or saying something like “can you let me in, please?”
- Using a small vacuum cleaner. It doesn’t have to be turned on, but a few minutes with a vac can help your child to walk around the room, stretching their legs as well as keeping their minds focused
- Using a broom/brush to sweep the floor. Like vacuuming, this helps your child to get around a bit, while it also helps them to push in different directions
- Pulling a door/window open. This can work in much the same way as pushing things open and can be done every day
- Using blu-tak or putty for fidgeting. Pulling apart pieces of blu-tak or putty can help your child to pull in various ways, whilst also allowing them to stim to calm their senses
- Drawing lines from the top of a piece of paper to the bottom. This can also be therapeutic and is less difficult to do than other types of pulling exercises. It also helps your child to learn how to pull something towards themselves
- Going on a swing. This can be done at home or at the nearest local playground, whichever your child is most comfortable with
Jumping and fidgeting
- Bouncing up and down on a trampoline
- Jumping up and down on the spot
- Playing with something like a tangle toy or stress ball
- Playing with a rubber band – this can help with pulling too
- Bouncing a ball against the floor/walls
Heavy work needn’t be so, well, heavy! It can be fun and, if done regularly help to ensure that your child feels more relaxed in their surroundings and less anxious. It will also help them to get used to pushing, pulling and all other kinds of movement.