Touch, see and hear: Students build sensory boards for children with autism

10/04/2018

It’s common for preschool-aged children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to have sensory integration difficulties, such as an extra sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights and even touch. Oftentimes, along with sensory disturbances, children with ASD exhibit delayed communication skills. They may have trouble interpreting and responding to sensory information, and with limited verbal skills, this sensory overload may contribute to behavioral and information-processing problems, which can make learning difficult.

Sensory boards – containing objects like hinges, locks, Velcro, zippers and lights – can help children with autism by allowing them to stimulate their senses at their own pace. The boards have been utilized to promote cognitive development, expand expressive communication, encourage social interactions and improve motor development.

VIDEO: “Sensory boards in action

This semester, students in the Department of Engineering and Science Technology here at The University of Akron have been creating sensory boards for youngsters in the Summit County Educational Service Center’s preschool classrooms. The boards are a production of Craig Wise’s Strength of Materials class, in collaboration with Jacqueline Gallo, the ESC’s Early Childhood Intervention Specialist, and RyAnn Heller, speech language pathologist. Similar boards were crafted last semester for the ESC during Autism Awareness Month in April.

Using skills to meet special needs

Objects, including fidget spinners, toy race tracks, calculators, colorful lights and latches are safely affixed to the boards to provide children with additional sound, smell, touch and visual inputs. The construction engineering component of the project required our students to discuss material properties such as elasticity, brittleness, resilience and durability. They explored those terms that describe and quantify how engineering materials respond to load and deformation.

“This assignment is a great way to incorporate community involvement into the curriculum,” said Wise, associate professor of construction engineering technology. “The assignment requires students to explore the terms that describe and quantify how engineering materials respond to load and deformation in the context of sensory stimulation. Not only does the project help them better understand how to incorporate important engineering material properties into design, but the sensory boards help equip the special needs First Start preschool classrooms of the Summit County ESC. It’s a win-win.” 

Eight groups of students were each provided a 2-by-4-foot piece of half-inch plywood to mount a minimum of six sensory elements. Students were provided some design requirements/limitations, like avoiding using fluorescent lights and sharp objects, and providing strong color contrast between the board and objects. Students presented the boards to preschool children and their families, and faculty at Newberry Elementary School in Cuyahoga Falls in late September.

Children blossom

“Since integration of last year’s sensory boards, we have seen some of our children blossom in expressive communication skills as well as parallel play,” said Heller. “They not only use the boards for sensory self-regulation, but they have gone beyond that and have been able to use the boards as gateways to improving their play skills, expressive communication skills and fine motor skills. We are thrilled and so thankful for these sensory boards.”

The sensory boards will be utilized in the ESC’s First Start program, which is a specialized, intensive program for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or who have needs (language, social and behavioral) related to autism, as well as in the sensory room at Newberry Elementary and throughout the districts the ESC services. The ESC oversees special education preschool services for nine districts in Summit County and one in Portage County — a total of 27 preschool classrooms.


Media contact: Alex Knisely, 330-972-6477 or aknisely@uakron.edu.