The Power of Sensory Breaks
Perhaps the number one tool any autistic person has for keeping themselves regulated and calm is stimming. We stim at home, at work, at school, in public, in private, wherever we need it to add to or detract from the sensory input we’re getting. But there’s an even stronger tool that can help us when we’re dealing with anxiety or other mental or emotional stress. I’m talking about full sensory breaks.
What Are Sensory Breaks?
A sensory break is like stimming on steroids. It’s a full-body experience that gets you out of your head and into your body, engaging as many of your senses as possible. They’ve caught on in schools recently, with “sensory paths” becoming the new hot trend for helping ND and NT kids alike burn off some energy and regain their focus.
This is one of my favorite examples because it includes so many different kinds of movements alternated with still portions and instructions to breathe.
How Can They Help?
Staying still keeps us in our heads. Even while we’re stimming, if we’re stuck at a desk or planted on a couch, anxiety or other nervous or pent up energy can continue to build up and disrupt our ability to concentrate and function.
Getting moving – in any way, but especially in our preferred ways – takes stimming to another level. It produces endorphins and gets our brain in a different state, interrupting the anxious thoughts, overwhelming emotions, or other unpleasant cycles our brains may get stuck in. Following a sensory path like the one above makes you focus on following directions, controlling your body, balancing, and more, all while it lets you get into a rhythmic movement pattern that soothes and quiets your brain.
How To Integrate Sensory Breaks Into Your Day
If you’re an autistic adult with a job and responsibilities, chances are that you won’t have access to those cool sensory paths they put in schools. (Although if you’re an autistic teacher and your school has one, it would be so cool if you went through the path with your students and you’d probably love it.) That’s ok – there are plenty of other ways to get a sensory break even during your work day.
One of the easiest ways, and what I do most often, is to take a ten or fifteen minute break and walk around my office building. I grab my phone and a pair of headphones, put on a podcast, and walk around outside for a bit. The walking stays pretty steady, giving me the rhythmic stimulation, getting outside offers a change of scenery, the podcast gives me something to listen to other than my own thoughts (but sometimes it’s also just background noise), and I’m moving my whole body for kinesthetic stimulation – something office jobs steal from us.
Depending on where you work, or what the weather is like, walking around outside in the middle of your work day may not be feasible. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a sensory break. You can take that same break time and walk up and down the stairs in your building. I’ve been known to walk down the hall to the ladies’ room on my floor and just pace back and forth in the restroom for a few minutes. Anywhere you can find a little privacy, you can do jumping jacks, walk on lines or avoiding cracks, play hopscotch (with or without an actual course drawn out), or just take some time for a full-body stretch.
A daily exercise routine can offer scheduled sensory time, which helps keep our brains on an even keel with maintenance. Whatever you like best is a good idea: yoga focuses on breathing and flow, walking or running gives that rhythmic stimulation, swimming combines repetitive movement with controlled breathing, dance offers music and a focus on remembering steps to occupy your brain, weightlifting requires keeping proper form and balance. All forms of regular exercise have sensory benefits!
Other Forms of Sensory Time
The truth is autistics need sensory time when we need it. Our brains get overwhelmed on their own schedule and we can’t always wait for a lunch break or our normal workout time to fix it. And some of us have mobility issues or chronic pain conditions that make even a short walk untenable. But there are lots of options for getting in some full-body sensory time.
My first recommendation (because I love it so much) is always a swing. There is nothing quite so lovely and soothing to me as swinging on a swing set or a tire swing. I don’t love porch swings as much, but that’s just my opinion. If you have access to a playground, monkey bars can also be great, whether you actually go across them or just hang from one bar. In fact, if hanging is your thing, you can install a bar in a doorway in your home for that purpose.
Hula hooping is a great sensory activity that can be done with or without music. Keep it old school with just one hoop around your waist or learn all the cool moves that professional performers do with the entire body or multiple hoops. Stim dance is another great option – just put on your favorite stimmy music and move as the music moves you. The great thing about stim dancing is that it doesn’t matter if you “can’t dance” – that’s not the point. Just do what feels right, in the privacy of your own home, and enjoy finding the cool ways your body can express things.
Rocking chairs provide a gentle, low impact form of nearly full-body sensory time. Put a little extra effort into the rocking, using your legs and leaning almost as you would on a swing, and you’ve got a sensory break suitable for those with mobility or chronic pain issues.
Sensory breaks can disrupt anxiety, burn off extra nervous or pent up energy, and help you regain focus. If you find yourself getting mentally or emotionally drained after a few hours on the job, try taking a short sensory break and see if it doesn’t help you get back on your game. On days when the anxiety is worse than usual, try a change of scenery and some movement before you decide you can’t function any longer. Sometimes all it takes is a quick sensory break to get your brain back under control and able to cope.
What’s your favorite way to get in some sensory time every day? Do you schedule your sensory breaks or do you need to take them on short notice throughout the day? Have I missed any other good ways to take a sensory break during the work day?