Sensory toys and materials can reveal key details about a child’s abilities and development—but they also can serve as a gateway to a closer and more trusting relationship with the child throughout an evaluation process.
Formal assessments certainly provide essential information, but interesting sensory materials can establish a more authentic connection with the child—or verbally fluent adult—that elicits a better understanding of his or her worldview, according to author Dr. Marilyn Monteiro, PhD.
Monteiro has evaluated more than 4,000 children on the autism spectrum and trained hundreds of educators and clinicians on how to diagnose and understand individuals on the spectrum. She discovered near the beginning of her 30-year career that when conducting an evaluation, behavior rating scales and standardized assessment measures just weren’t enough.
“What was lacking for me was really having that instant connection with the child, being able to put the child or teenager at ease, and really get to know what makes their brain tick—what things make their brains alert and engaged, and discovering what they are passionate about,” Monteiro said.
Materials can lead to conversation
Monteiro started collecting interesting sensory materials, or what she calls “sensory conversation starters.”
Before the evaluation, she would open her “Mary Poppins bag” containing different objects and materials, creating a more informal interview with the child. But it turned out to be an “autism conversation,” involving a limited amount of social talking in order to invite the child to share more.
“When I started doing this, it ended up becoming a formal process because I did it over and over and over again,” Monteiro said. “And I found that during the informal time with the sensory materials, I was able to really get a lot of information about the child’s strengths and differences, how they are using language and communication, their social relationships and how they work with other people and their emotions, what type of three-dimensional thinkers they were, and what kinds of things they were sensitive to.”
Monteiro eventually developed this process into her widely-used and recently updated autism evaluation method, the MIGDAS-2, which relies on descriptive conversations from multiple sources to build a highly personalized profile of the individual, linked to customized intervention strategies.
Obtain key information through materials
“Sensory materials also allow evaluators to observe when the individual has an aversion or sensitivity to sensory input,” said Monteiro, who also conducts trainings on how to communicate with families during the evaluation process.
The sensory-based conversation, using materials with distinctive sensory properties, provides a powerful way to distinguish between children with ASD whose brains organize best while focused on objects and typically developing children whose brains thrive on social communication.
Sensory materials can also elevate the quality of an evaluation with verbally fluent adults. According to the MIGDAS-2 manual, interviews with verbally fluent adults work best when conversation is the focus. But prior to the interview, placing several sensory objects where the adult will be sitting allows the practitioner to observe the individual’s use of objects as self-regulation tools, in addition to collecting self-report information during the interview.
To promote a productive diagnostic interview with verbally fluent adults, Monteiro suggests sensory materials that include novel fidget items, such as magnets for manipulation (e.g., the X-Ball and Ball of Whacks), the thunder tube percussion instrument, and assorted sensory stress balls.
The following list contains sensory materials that have been shown to provide some form of clear sensory input. They can provide a way for the individual to set up repetitive sensory routines to obtain visual, auditory, or tactile input.
When searching for sensory materials, Monteiro looks for objects that fall into one of the following categories:
- Visual cause-and-effect materials: Water games, spinning light-up materials that require the individual to push a button to operate them, magnetic puzzles, and other materials of this nature.
- Noisemakers: Thunder tube percussion instrument, plastic tubes that make a squawking sound when they are tilted back and forth, musical materials, and plastic microphones that produce an echo when spoken into.
- Tactile objects: Sensory stress balls with various textures and animal-shaped materials that vibrate.
- Science objects: Magnets, a robot arm that can be used to grasp objects, a small robot that lights up and moves, and an expanding sphere.
- Alternatives: Books, figurines, or photos of popular cartoon or video game characters available to trigger the child’s specific areas of interest.
This list of sensory materials originally appeared in Marilyn Monteiro’s 2010 book Autism Conversations: Evaluating Children on the Autism Spectrum through Authentic Conversations. Learn more about the MIGDAS-2, which includes updated information for building a sensory-based materials kit.