Spinning toys & autism

Written by alinda quinn ford
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Spinning toys & autism
The prevalence of autism is one in 110 children. (children image by Orlando Florin Rosu from Fotolia.com)

The Autism Society of America, a leading non-profit organisation providing support for people affected by autism, defines the disorder as a "complex developmental disability" whose symptoms appear very early in a child's life and affect many areas of the child's functioning. Autism is primarily a behavioural disorder, affecting children along a "spectrum," meaning autism presents itself uniquely in every child. The Centers for Disease Control's most recent numbers place the prevalence of autism at 1 in 110 children overall, and 1 in 70 boys.

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Features of Autism

There are no biological tests for autism, and its diagnosis can be fairly complicated, depending on how severely it affects a child. As a behavioural disability, medical, educational or psychological professionals can diagnose autism using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The latest version, the DSM-IV-TR (in part reprinted on the Autism Speaks website) defines autism as a combination of impairments in the areas of social functioning, communication and stereotyped or repetitive behaviours.

Play Behavior

One of the types of odd behaviours parents often note is the unusual way a child with autism plays. The manner of play is a major diagnostic clue to professionals working with these children. One of the most common disordered patterns of play is a preoccupation with spinning objects, such as ceiling fans, wheels on toy vehicles and toys that spin. In fact, often a child with autism will prefer to spin objects, watch spinning objects, or spin themselves over any type of interactive or imaginative play.

Spinning toys & autism
Many chldren with autism fixate on spinning objects. (spin image by Vladislav Gajic from Fotolia.com)

Cause of Behavior

While there is no single known cause of autism, there are a couple of explanations about why children with autism are fascinated with spinning. They both have to do with how people with autism process sensory information. Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, is common among people with autism.SPD refers to the brain's inability to accurately process and utilise information received through the five far senses--sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell--and the lesser known near senses--the vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

Vestibular Sense

Hyposensitivity (or under-responsiveness) to movement is attributed to the vestibular sense. This sense, according to Terri Mauro, author of "The Everything Parent's Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder," kicks in when your body moves and the liquid in the "vestibules" in the inner ears send messages to the brain about what your body is doing. Mauro says that your brain can then "make important determinations that make you sure and secure in your movements." When this sense is under-reactive, a simple solution is that a child would seek out movements, such as spinning or swinging, to force or trigger a response in this important system.

Visual Processing

The more commonly known visual sense might be responsible for the obsession with looking at spinning objects as well. The College of Optometrists in Visual Development website explains that visual processing difficulties are common in children with autism, and a symptom of disordered visual processing is staring at spinning objects for increased visual input.

Intervention and Help

There is more than one school of thought on the subject of autism in general, and that is certainly true specifically with the issue of spinning in autism. Some professionals argue that extinguishing the behaviour by avoidance is the best approach. Others argue that providing spinning opportunities actually will decrease this need in children with SPD and autism. Regardless, the most common treatment recommendation is occupational therapy with a therapist trained in dealing with SPD. Occupational therapy is a useful tool for children craving increased visual and vestibular input. A trained therapist can work with children and parents in a supportive environment and train parents on procedures and habits to help establish what is known as a healthy sensory diet, or methods for addressing SPD challenges daily.

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