Using Engine Changers and Fidgets to Meet Sensory Differences

How do we go about meeting the diverse sensory needs of each young adult in the Social Stories Spectrum Project? The participants arrive by train, bus, cars, and Uber drivers from various parts of the county and city. They gather together for four hours, explore museums, and co-create social stories together. All of this activity can be very challenging, especially for those young adults in our group that have sensory processing challenges.

Within a few sessions, it became apparent that we needed to make small adjustments to help shape the environment and provide sensory input to help the participants feel more centered, focused, and regulated emotionally and behaviorally for increased learning opportunities and social interactions.

From the very first meeting, we co-created a list of “Group Expectations” as well as a “5-Point Feelings Check-In.” We identified a “time-in” place when breaks from the group are needed. At the beginning of each session, each person checks in with the group to say how their day has been going and how they are currently feeling (tired from an exam, hot and tired from walking in the heat, hungry, happy, feeling great, etc.). We then play an icebreaker game, which connects us to each other before we start on that day’s activity. This has proven to be a great way to explore our commonalities and differences. This is a big hit with the participants as they learn about the things they share in common, especially music and movies.

To meet various sensory needs, we dim the lights in our meeting room and also use an “Engine Changer/Fidget” basket to further support individual sensory needs. The basket typically contains gum; hard candy for sucking; sour candy to increase alertness; chewy candy to work the jaw; sculpting wax; and hand fidgets to keep fingers busy. The use of engine changers/fidgets helps participants to sustain their attention to the task at hand.

Seating arrangements are considered as well. Those that need movement input may choose office chairs that spin and rock, or therapy balls to sit on. This input is alerting to the nervous system and has helped participants to be more engaged in the learning process. Participants have also learned to advocate where they would like to sit in the group to be most comfortable.

As team leaders, we encourage individuals to express their own needs as well as recognize and support the needs of other individuals and the needs of the group as a whole. It has been a joy to observe their progress individually, as well as their progress in being a group participant. They are learning how to be leaders, how to speak up to express their own opinions, how to accept feedback, how to manage their time, and how to show respect toward others. Socially, outside of the scheduled meeting time, they are often found huddled together at a table in the Museum’s Atrium enjoying each other’s company before the group starts, and some are getting together on the weekends.

As an occupational therapy provider, this has been an incredible experience to participate in. I have enjoyed watching each individual unfold their layers and come together to participate and respect the group process while creating useful documents for individuals on the autism spectrum to better access Balboa Park museums. 

Our basket of “Engine Changers/Fidgets” help individuals with autism to regulate their nervous system and/or make them feel more alert and focused.

A variety of fidgets allow our young adults to keep their hands busy and their brains focused on the conversation at hand.

At the beginning of each meetup, the group revisits the Expectations list that was generated at the first meetup.

At different stages of the meetup, we go around the table and ask everyone to give a number to how they “feel” at that particular time.


Posted By Bobbi Hanna, COTA/L Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant .

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