Because they provide both a recreational activity and a type of positive sensory input, swings are great tools for working with children and adults on the autism spectrum. From dedicated therapy swings to those that you can buy at your local toy store, there are lots of options for using these swings at home and at school.
Swinging and Sensory Integration
Many individuals on the autism spectrum struggle with sensory processing. Although they may receive the same sensory information as everyone else, their brains can have trouble filtering out the unimportant details. In some cases, they may also crave sensory input in order to make sense of the world around them. According to the Autism Research Institute, swinging is an essential part of sensory integration therapy and is an activity that is easy for parents and caregivers to incorporate in the home routine.
According to the Autism Research Institute, swinging back and forth can stimulate the vestibular system, the portion of the inner ear that provides input about a person's position in space. Additionally, swinging can help with proprioception, or the neurological sense of spatial position. Proprioception challenges are common with ASD, according to a study in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
Types of Swings to Consider
There are a number of different types of swings that you can use for sensory integration, ranging greatly in price and complexity. The right option for you will depend on your specific needs.
In many cases, a simple play swing is a great choice for sensory challenges. These basic swings are easy on the pocketbook, since they aren't marketed especially for people with special needs. You can use them on a standard swing set or hang them inside from the rafters of your home.
They come in a range of different styles that are appropriate for various ages. Consider some of the following:
- Bucket swing - This style of swing, which features an enclosed "bucket" with holes for a child's legs is a great, safe choice for younger children. Options like the Full Bucket Swing from Toys "R" Us retail for about $65 and come with wrapped chains for a sturdy, pinch-free ride.
- Seat swing - This is the type of swing you traditionally see at playgrounds, but it works just as well at home. Models like the Extra-Duty Swing Seat, which retails for just under $40 on Amazon, can support older children and adults.
- Glider swing - If the person using it feels unstable on a traditional seat swing, another option is a glider swing. This style includes a seat, handlebars, and foot rests. Most are designed for children, such as the Wind Rider Glider Swing, which retails for about $60 on Amazon.
It's important to note the weight limit when purchasing a play swing, especially if it will be used by an older child or an adult. Many models are made for younger children.
Cocoon or Cuddle Swings
In addition to providing the stimulating back and forth movement, some swings also offer reassuring sensory input in the form of gently squeezing sides. Typically, these swings are made of stretchy fabric to offer deep and steady pressure. They hang from a single point at the top and enclose the child or adult on three sides.
Some options, like the Cuddle Swing from DreamGYM, are designed with children in mind. This affordable option comes in six attractive colors, includes all the necessary hanging materials, and retails for about $90. It has a weight limit of 80 pounds.
Other choices are more appropriate for older kids and adults. With a weight limit of 300 pounds, the Adult Cuddle Swing from Southpaw Enterprises offers the deep pressure and vestibular stimulation many individuals need. It comes in blue and retails for just under $200.
Platform swings are made of large padded platforms suspended on all four corners. They offer a hangout space where a child or adult can play while receiving vestibular stimulation. People can sit, stand, lie, or kneel on the swing, which usually hangs about six inches off the ground. They are common in occupational therapy centers, but you can also install one at home.
Options like the Carpeted Plywood Platform Swing from eSpecialNeeds are affordable and safe. This model is available in child or adult sizes, has no sharp corners or edges, and can support as many as three people at a time. The price ranges from about $190 to about $260, depending on the size.
Made up of a long padded cylinder or block, bolster swings give kids and adults the opportunity to position themselves in a variety of ways. They can stand on the swing, straddle it, lie on it, or even hang from it. They offer vestibular stimulation, as well as an opportunity for social play. Typically, these large swings hang from two points on the ceiling and are position about a foot off the ground. You'll see them at schools and occupational therapy centers, but you can also have one at home.
Some models, like the Bolster Swing from Sensory Goods, are available in multiple sizes. This model comes in 42-inch and 60-inch lengths, both of which can support up to 400 pounds. It comes with hanging hardware and starts at about $230.
Choosing a Swing for Home
Consider the Sensory Need
Before you buy a swing for sensory integration, be sure you consider the specific sensory needs of the person who will be using it. In general, it's a good idea to talk to an occupational therapist and get some recommendations.
- Someone who only needs vestibular stimulation might do well with a basic play swing.
- An individual who needs vestibular stimulation but also physical support from an adult might do better with a platform swing or bolster swing.
- Someone who likes deep pressure in addition to vestibular stimulation would appreciate a cuddle swing.
Decide Where to Hang It
Where you will hang the swing may dictate the type of swing you want to purchase:
- If you will be hanging the swing from a dedicated swing set outside your home, make sure the swing you choose will withstand the elements.
- If you'll be hanging it indoors, consider having a contractor come and make sure the beams and rafters of your home will support the weight.
- Make sure there is plenty of clearance around the swing. If you have limited space, a play swing or cuddle swing may be better options than a bulky platform or bolster.
Make It Fun
Like any type of therapy, it's important to make swinging fun. If the child or adult enjoys the activity, it may even become a reward for interaction or communication.
- Make the swinging environment enjoyable. Put on music if the individual enjoys that. If the child or adult is overstimulated, try dimming the lights and making things as quiet as possible.
- If the individual is nervous about the swinging experience, allow him or her to keep a foot on the floor for reassurance and stability.
- Never force this activity. Swinging should be enjoyable for everyone involved.
Work With a Professional
If you suspect that a child or adult on the autism spectrum has sensory challenges but you haven't yet worked with a professional, it's essential that you consult with an occupational therapist. Having a swing at home can offer calming sensory input and plenty of fun, but it isn't a substitute for therapy. An occupational therapist can do a formal assessment and identify the many ways you can provide sensory integration help at home and at school.