Thoughts of an Aspie: A Practical Look at Autism Therapy Supplies

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

A Practical Look at Autism Therapy Supplies
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

What does the word therapy mean to you? Well, in a practical sense, therapy can be an umbrella that doesn’t just cover actions but also things. A lot of medical conditions include therapy supplies that are things you buy and not things you do. Autism is no different in that aspect. Today we’re going to discuss some physical aids that are used in the treatment of an autism spectrum disorder.

The Benefits of Physical Therapy aids for ASD

Physical therapy aids can be  a big benefit for a person on the spectrum. This is especially true since a lot of people on the spectrum physically manifest emotional responses and anxiety more than a typical person would. While many of us may not think too much about a stress ball, a blanket,or even see a point to paying more for a natural light desk lamp these things can be essentials for a person on the spectrum feeling right in their environment. Aids can not only help a person on the spectrum feel grounded but also alter their environment to help them deal with sensory input and reduce the chances of getting overloaded.

The Unfortunate Truth About Autism Therapy

Even though therapy is a huge benefit to those on the spectrum, it can often be hard to obtain. While some therapy supplies can be relatively affordable,others are not and the majority of them are not covered by medical insurance and must be purchased out of pocket by the person. This could be because of the lack of solid resources on what helps for those on the spectrum but also because it is an invisible and sometimes confusing condition for even some medical professionals to grasp.

Adding to that confusion is that not all therapies will apply for each person on the spectrum. The types of therapy supplies needed will vary person to person as sensory issues do. While some people may have more issues with light or sound, some may also have issues with smell or textures. Some people on the spectrum have more issues feeling grounded in their environment then others and each person will stim a little differently than another person. The large range of needs and behaviors between people on the spectrum can make tackling therapy in general difficult but definitely creates a difference in what therapy supplies are considered vital.

Since most of the therapy items ideal for those on the spectrum are actually pretty ordinary it is often hard to prove them as a medical purchase because they appear to be normal items that a lot of people might buy.For instance, stress balls are considered almost an obligatory promotional item and not a therapy item and fidget toys  are often seen as toys for children as opposed to a vital element to therapy. A lot of the therapy items I’ll cover are things you would at some point have a reason to buy as just a person and not necessarily as a therapy item.

Some Basic Therapy Supplies for ASD

Aromatherapy

Some people on the spectrum have a sensory sensitivity to smells in their environment. One of the simplest ways to curb this or at the very least turn it into more of a positive is to try aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is a very popular thing right now and can be expensive over time depending on how you go about it. What always worked best for me was actually a bracelet with aromatherapy discs you slid into part of it. I could take it wherever I went. It didn’t look anymore awkward than say an arm weight or sport accessory. The refills were even fairly affordable in comparison to a small bottle of essential oil. Aromatherapy can either be used to help distract away from other  smells in the environment or it can be used just as aromatherapy where certain scents promote certain moods. Either way can greatly benefit a person on the spectrum and help them be comfortable in their environment. Other cheaper forms of aromatherapy can be scented candles or air fresheners.

Alternative Lighting

We often don’t think about lights as being disruptive but some types of light can cause sensory issues for a person on the spectrum. The best type of lighting is one that mimics natural light as artificial lighting such as fluorescent lights can cause disturbances.Some people on the spectrum can see the flickering or hear the hum of the bulbs in a fluorescent light. For me personally it’s something like sitting under a flickering light and a beehive at the same time.  The same natural lights that help for seasonal depression can be a great resource for a person on the spectrum to have. The bulbs are made to emit a more natural  and usually warmer light that doesn’t distract or overwhelm.

Alternatively there are types of fluorescent lights that are less harsh to sit under,covers or filters that can be put over fluorescent lights to reduce the intensity, and lighting systems that allow for the person to dim or control the light brightness.Some situations may even be as a simple as a change to the bulb type you use or a new lampshade that filters and warms the light being emitted.

Fluorescent light has actually been proven to bother more than just people on the spectrum and even lower productivity in some cases but some people will only perceive it as a minor annoyance and not a meltdown. Natural light bulbs and the lamps can cost a bit more than a typical lamp. My natural light desklamp put me out close to $40.00 and I haven’t had to see the price tag on a new bulb just yet since they do last pretty well. But in the long run a few small lighting changes can make a world of difference for someone on the spectrum and be well worth the cost.

Sound Therapy

The typical human brain will naturally filter out a good number of background noises but for a person on the spectrum it can be like living with super hearing. One of the big things that can help is white noise. White noise is a common factor in aiding those with sleep  and anxiety problems but can also help a person on the spectrum tune out the more distracting noises around them.

While a quality white noise machine can cost $40+ you can buy some headphones on the cheap as an alternative and tune into a site called http://mynoise.net on your computer or phone. If you can afford it there are also hearing aids that are essentially in-ear white noise devices but for a cheap alternative you can buy a low end bluetooth earpiece and link it to white noise playing on your phone for an easy white noise solution that is mostly hands free and easily able to blend  in when you venture out into the world. You can also get even simpler and get a fan. Fans are a natural provider of white noise and can be a great alternative if you need the white noise while you sleep and don’t want to be bogged down with having headphones in, but can’t afford a sound machine.

If you do invest in a white noise machine,go for one that has a range of sounds because everyone is a little different. There are nights I like the crackling campfire or the sound of rain but other nights I might prefer ocean waves or nature noises so try to find a quality one that will give you some options.

Texture Therapy

Some therapy items are to help for when a person on the spectrum has a high sensitivity to texture.They are typically things that encourage tactile input. The idea is that it can provide something that the person doesn’t mind touching as opposed to maybe a chalky desk or bothersome clothing fabric. Some of the textures on these types of supplies are smooth or soft as these are typically comforting to a person on the spectrum. An example would be that most fidget cubes have one side that appears to have nothing but it is actually meant to be a side for textural therapy purposes. For a person on the spectrum it usually doubles as a distraction from disruptive or unpleasant textures but also as a source of comfort and calming. The repetitive motion of rubbing the more pleasing texture can also coincide with how a person stims in some cases.

Fidget Toys

Fidget toys aren’t really toys in a traditional sense. They are small devices that twist,bend,or move in ways that accommodate a person fidgeting or stimming. They are typically made to assist those with anxiety and acute fidgeting issues but have a tendency get downgraded to being a novelty toy instead. The best example is a fidget spinner which took the world by storm and was given to quite a few kids to keep them busy. It was just as vigorously played up as being stupid and pointless when it lost popularity. Part of that was because people seemed largely unaware of who the target audience for fidget spinners and similar items are.

Fidget toys aren’t meant to be toys. They’re made to channel the anxiety and energy that can overwhelm anxiety sufferers and people on the spectrum. They are also meant to focus and calm. They aren’t designed to be a fad toy or something you use to do tricks on a Youtube video. Many items like stress balls and even a lot of physics toys fall into the category of being for this purpose as well. Fidget cubes are another popular one and can actually cost over $30.00 despite their tiny size. I would probably die from anxiety if I didn’t take my fidget cube everywhere with me though. With fidget toys it’s especially important for people to understand their purpose and that sometimes people aren’t playing with them at all but trying to positively channel something more serious.

If you’re trying to shop for a fidget toy it can be a little overwhelming. There are tons of types of them out there and it can be hard to tell which one will help you at first. Before you buy, think about how you stim. If you move your hands around more try something stretchy or moldable. Don’t use a regular novelty stressball though. Find a softer one  or even one of the ones that looks sort of like a bunch of tiny balls in a ball. These ones are a little better and can stand up to intense squeezing and stretching without hurting your hand. Fidget cubes and spinners are sort of a staple but try to consider if you’re a spinner,button pusher,or switch clicker before dropping them into your cart. If you’re a pen clicker like me, a fidget cube will be your new best friend. If you like spinning things the fidget spinner might be your cup of tea. If you really get active hands there are are even these things that look sort of like strings but they’re made of a gel sort of substance and can be stretched,tied, and abused pretty badly without falling apart. Basically the key to finding a fidget toy that helps is understanding your habits and needs.

Weighted Items

One of the issues some people on the spectrum have is feeling grounded in their environment. This is kind of a strange feeling to explain but sometimes due to a lack of pressure on the body you kind of feel like you’re floating no matter where you are. This creates a sort of disconnect for the person that can build anxiety. One of the therapies that remedies this is for the person to have a weighted item. When I say a weighted item I don’t mean a barbell or an exercise aid. Therapeutic weighted items for those on the spectrum are usually things that also help with touch therapy as they’re usually covered in a soft material such as minky fabric or fleece.

For kids it’s typical to find weighted stuffed animals and there are also weighted blankets you can get in various sizes or just simple weighted pads you can rest in your lap while you sit. The purpose is to put some pressure on the person’s body and make them feel calm or grounded. Weights vary and some people may need heavier or lighter weighted items than others. Weighted items can be a bit pricey though. My weighted blanket is just throw size and 5lbs but it cost about $150. A full weighted bedspread can be over $200.Even a weighted stuffed animal can be well more than you’d pay for multiple toys. The good news is that it does help. It’s not really about the  expense or the person being finicky about blankets. It’s a good and simple solution that helps a person on the spectrum be more aware of their environment

Chewable Items

Chewing is a behavior that is most commonly seen in children on the spectrum but can also be something an adult does. I know personally I only chew or bite in extreme situations of anxiety  and the first thing I go for is unfortunately my own hand. I’ve actually bitten a few times to the point I nearly drew blood. That’s why things like chewing rings and similar aids exist. Biting is a destructive form of stimming and a type of self-harm at its root. The point of a chewing therapy aid is so the person can safely bite down on something that won’t injure them or their teeth. I think the biggest misconception for this form of stimming is that only kids do it though.

If you’re an adult with a biting issue ,it makes you a bit more embarrassed, but go for the chewing aid if you really need it. It’s better than injuring your body or hurting your teeth. If you see a child using one of these aids try to be understanding. They aren’t trying to hurt you or themselves. They’re just displaying a more extreme form of stimming that can be kept at bay with the right aid.

Getting Supplies on a Budget

I love Amazon. You can get a lot of things on Amazon for great and usually lower than retail prices so it’s a great and reliable place to shop for any of the things mentioned in this article. One of the good things about these therapy items is that they are at their heart regular consumer items and not medical supplies so you can shop around and they are generally easy to find. Some things will still be a little high in price even on a site like Amazon but take your time and compare products if you need to get them for some autism therapy on a budget. If you can and depending on the item you could also consider that Amazon has a great return policy even on used items so you might be able to buy something used and in good condition but still have protection to return it if things don’t work out. This could be a viable option for an appliance therapy item like the sound machine or diffuser.

Another great benefit to using something online is that you don’t have to brave a retail store or feel a need to explain yourself to a cashier. Not having to go into a store and still getting what you need can be a big deal when you’re shopping with the limitations of sensory or interpersonal issues and the Amazon box will come discretely and securely to your door. If you have to write them off somehow or reimburse yourself from an HSA, you have a concrete transaction number and no fiddling with receipts to worry about.

The Importance of Outside Impressions

Something that keeps a lot of people on the spectrum from getting the therapy supplies they need is the stigma. While some people may never notice the person is even utilizing a therapy tool,others might make a person feel bad or embarrassed about it which discourages some people from using therapy supplies that could change their whole outlook on life. If you recognize a loved one or co-worker is using some of these items and might be using them therapeutically,try to understand that they aren’t playing with toys and clutching a security blanket but trying to compensate for the sensory disturbances and improve their environment. Learning to see a situation from another person’s perspective might change things and it’s a sign of respect to that person. They might be a little different and need a little help but they’re just humans trying to live their lives like you at the end of the day. You might even find some new benefits in that item yourself if you keep an open mind.

Conclusion

In the same way a cane can add mobility for a physical disability, we need to take advantage of the idea that a tangible object can be part of the solution for a very intangible disorder. Understanding that there are items you can buy to help make an environment less disruptive for a person on the spectrum can make a huge difference and understanding what those items mean to the person using them is key. Everyone is dealing with something and a little different so learning to see a fidget spinner,stress ball,or scent diffuser in a different light can change your whole perspective and change the world of a person on the spectrum so they can truly enjoy it.

 

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