Except where bugs are concerned.
She’s on the autism spectrum with lots of sensory-processing issues. Her mom Joslyn says Elaina has been coming to Schreiber for occupational, physical and speech therapy for about two-and-a-half years. Show her a plastic container with some planting soil and earthworms, and she will pull away like there’s a spider in front of her.
“She’s afraid to go outside,” Joslyn says.
We hear similar versions of this story from the parents of the children they treat each spring through the summer. There are strategies occupational therapists and parents can use to help kids be more comfortable playing among the bugs and dirt.
2. Educate inside the house. We begin with non-threatening bug games like “Spin the Beetle” (Milton Bradley), “Up the Water Spout, a Spider Racing Game” (International Playthings), “Squiggly Worms” (Pressman), and move on to “Cootie” (Milton Bradley). The games are modified depending on the age level. For example, “Cootie” can be played with spelling words or math problems for elementary children.
3. Progress to more vivid illustrations of insects. The children design their own bugs using multiple media, including colored pencils or molding clay. And parents can use electronic games such as “Bugs N Buttons” (little bit studio, 2014) and “Bugs N Bubbles” (little bit studio, 2012) that have lifelike graphics.
4. Have the child build stories. Social sensory stories are written specific to the child with photos or pictures included. I work with Elaina to have her draw pictures in response to a series of prompts about what she can find outside. The combination of the prompts and the pictures helps Elaina create an Elaina book about things outside her house, starting with everyday objects she’s comfortable with (like grass and dogs and cars), then working gradually up to bugs. So one prompt and picture — “Dogs and cats like to play with people. Bugs are afraid of people” — leads to the next — “Because people are big, and bugs are small.”
5. Shift their focus. Sometimes, you can redirect a child’s attention to a goal-specific task, such as a treasure hunt. Praise every success, even if it’s just taking one step out the door. The next time hide more treasures.
These are just some of the steps that our OT’s have used successfully to desensitize children who fear bugs and won’t go outside. At Schreiber, we customize our treatment, so that each child has a specific program to suit their goals.
Bernie Hershey is an occupational therapist at Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center in Lancaster, Pa. She has been helping kids slide on scooters, balance on balls and climb on ropes for more than 30 years, all in the name of helping improve the quality of their lives.