supporting people

19 June, 2024

The Role of Stress Shapes in Supporting Individuals with Autism

When it comes to the field of therapeutic aids for autism, quite often it is the simple tools that can make a profound difference. One such tool is the use of custom stress shapes, also known as sensory toys, in supporting individuals with autism. Let's see why these seemingly simple objects hold so much potential.

Why Stress Shapes are Beneficial for Autism
1. Sensory Processing Support
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) frequently exhibit atypical sensory processing patterns. These patterns are broadly categorized into hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli.

- Clinical Manifestation: Hypersensitive individuals may exhibit adverse reactions to sensory stimuli that are typically well-tolerated by neurotypical individuals. This can include discomfort or distress in response to textures, sounds, or visual inputs.

- Therapeutic Intervention Using Stress Shapes: Stress shapes with smooth, non-abrasive textures can be soothing for hypersensitive individuals. The gentle tactile input provided by these shapes can help modulate sensory over-responsiveness, thereby reducing distress and discomfort.

- Clinical Outcomes: Regular use of appropriate ones can lead to decreased sensory avoidance behaviours, improved tolerance to tactile stimuli, and overall better sensory integration.

- Clinical Manifestation: Conversely, hyposensitive individuals may seek or be indifferent to sensory stimuli. They might not respond to sensations that typically elicit a reaction.

- Therapeutic Intervention Using Stress Shapes: In these cases, stress shapes with varied, more pronounced textures can provide the necessary sensory input. These shapes can stimulate tactile sensory receptors, thereby providing the sensory feedback that these individuals seek.

- Clinical Outcomes: Using textured ones can lead to increased sensory awareness, improved sensory processing, and greater engagement with the environment.

2. Anxiety and Stress Relief

Anxiety and Stress Relief

Individuals with ASD often experience elevated anxiety and stress levels. This can be exacerbated in overstimulating or unfamiliar environments. Such heightened states of anxiety can impede cognitive functioning, social interaction, and overall well-being.

Therapeutic Use
- Self-Regulation Tool: Stress shapes can serve as a physical means of self-regulation. The act of squeezing and manipulating these shapes can provide a focus for excess energy and anxiety, channelling it into a controlled physical activity.

- Neurological Mechanism: This activity can activate the body’s proprioceptive system, which helps regulate the body’s response to sensory input. The proprioceptive feedback obtained through the manipulation of stress shapes can have a grounding effect, reducing feelings of anxiety.

- Clinical Outcomes: Regular use of them can result in a reduction in anxiety-induced behaviours, improved emotional regulation, and enhanced ability to cope with stressful situations. It can also contribute to a heightened sense of security and stability in overstimulating environments.

3. Improving Focus and Concentration
Attentional challenges are common in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These challenges can manifest as difficulty in sustaining attention on tasks, particularly in structured environments like classrooms.

Therapeutic Role
- Sensory Regulation for Enhanced Attention: The use of stress shapes provides a subtle yet effective sensory input. The repetitive action of squeezing the shape can help in regulating sensory needs, which is often a prerequisite for improved attention and focus.

- Neurological Basis: This sensory input can activate the proprioceptive system, which in turn helps in grounding the individual. Such proprioceptive feedback is known to help in reducing hyperactivity and enhancing attention span.

Clinical Outcomes: Implementing the use of them during tasks requiring sustained attention can lead to improved performance. This includes better engagement in classroom activities, increased completion of tasks, and reduced distractibility.

4. Enhancing Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skill deficits are commonly observed in individuals with ASD. These deficits can impact daily functional abilities, including writing, typing, and other hand-related tasks.

Therapeutic Use
- Motor Skill Development: Regular manipulation of stress shapes involves various hand movements such as gripping, squeezing, and pinching. These actions are instrumental in strengthening the muscles of the hands and fingers.

- Enhancing Dexterity and Coordination: Continued use of these shapes promotes the development of dexterity and hand-eye coordination. This is particularly beneficial for tasks that require precision and coordination, such as writing and handling small objects.

- Clinical Outcomes: Over time, individuals using them may exhibit improvements in fine motor skills. This includes enhanced grip strength, better control over hand movements, and increased ease in performing tasks requiring fine motor abilities.

5. Emotional Expression and Communication

Emotional Expression and Communication - Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio/ Pexels

Communication challenges, including difficulties in expressing emotions verbally, are common in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Non-verbal methods of communication can play a crucial role in facilitating emotional expression for these individuals.

Role of Stress Shapes in Emotional Expression
- Non-Verbal Communication Tool: They can be an effective medium for non-verbal communication. For individuals with ASD who find verbal expression challenging, the physical action of squeezing one can serve as a signal of their emotional state, particularly stress or anxiety.

- Indicator of Emotional State: The intensity or frequency of squeezing can provide caregivers, educators, or therapists with tangible cues about the individual’s level of distress or discomfort. This can be especially useful in environments where the individual might feel overwhelmed but is unable to verbally communicate their need for support.

- Facilitating Timely Interventions: Recognising these non-verbal cues can allow caregivers or educators to intervene promptly. This might involve providing a break, reducing sensory overload, or employing calming strategies.

- Empowering Self-Advocacy: Using them as a means of communication can empower individuals with ASD to advocate for their needs in a non-verbal manner. It allows them to assert control over their environment and communicate their needs in a manner that is comfortable and accessible for them.

- Clinical Outcomes: Incorporating them as a communication aid can lead to reduced frustration and anxiety for the individual, as they have a means to express their emotional state. It can also enhance the caregiver’s or educator’s ability to provide timely and effective support, thereby improving the overall care and educational experience for the individual with ASD.

Choosing the Right Stress Shape

Choosing the Right One

Selecting the appropriate shape is crucial in ensuring its effectiveness and safety for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Here are some expanded considerations to guide this selection:

1. Texture and Resistance
- Sensory Suitability: Each individual with ASD has unique sensory preferences and sensitivities. Some may prefer smooth, soft textures for a calming effect, while others might benefit from more textured surfaces for heightened sensory feedback.

- Resistance Level: The firmness of it also plays a critical role. A shape that is too soft may not provide enough sensory input, while one that is too hard may require more force than is comfortable or beneficial for the user.

2. Durability
- Long-Term Use: They are often used frequently and intensely. Choosing a shape that can withstand constant squeezing and manipulation is essential to ensure longevity.

- Quality of Materials: Look for high-quality materials that do not degrade easily. This not only makes it last longer but also ensures consistent performance over time.

3. Safety
- Non-Toxic Materials: The safety of the material is paramount. Ensure it is made from non-toxic materials, as it might come into contact with the user's skin frequently and, in the case of younger individuals, possibly their mouth.

- Choking Hazards: Particularly for younger children or those with a tendency to put objects in their mouth, it’s vital to choose ones that are large enough to prevent choking and do not have small parts that can detach.

4. Personal Preference
- Engagement Factor: One that aligns with the individual’s personal likes – be it a favourite colour, shape, or size – is more likely to be used consistently. A personal connection to the item can enhance its effectiveness.

- Inclusivity in Choice: Whenever possible, involving the individual with ASD in the selection process can be empowering. It not only ensures that the shape aligns with their preferences but also gives them a sense of control and ownership over their therapeutic tool.

Stress shapes are a simple, yet powerful tool in the arsenal of therapeutic aids for individuals with autism. They offer sensory support, stress relief, and can aid in skill development, all while being accessible and portable. As with any therapeutic tool, the key is to tailor the choice to the individual’s specific needs and preferences. Embracing such tools can make a significant difference in the daily lives of those with autism, offering them a sense of control, comfort, and support in navigating their world.

The Stress Balls Only Team