3 Ways to Use Pop It Sensory Toys to Help an Autistic Child

My autistic twins love fidget toys: you know those spinners, stress balls, fidget cubes and little marble mesh things that give your hands something to do while you watch something or read or just need some time out. My daughter’s favourite has to be the pop it ones that you see everywhere in all different sizes and colours where you press the holes in like bubble wrap then turn it over to do the same again. The repetitive motion, the soothing soft sound and the satisfaction of doing a full line or the full toy really help her relax and unwind after a long day at school. 

But other than just sitting popping them on her own is there anything else you can use them for to help an autistic child? Here are a few ideas I do with my daughter that have really helped her.

Turn-taking games

There are larger pop it toys specifically designed for such games but if you don’t want the extra expense of buying one you can use any ones you have already and a spare dice. The idea is simple: you each take turns rolling the dice and popping that number of ‘bubbles’ on the toy and the first to get their toy fully popped wins. This game is especially good for helping children learn turn-taking, developing the concept of fairness (if one pop it is smaller then is that really fair?), and learning to accept losing. For younger children, it helps simple counting and addition and for older children, it can help problem-solving and simple fractions (‘wow, you have half of yours popped already. Well done.’)

This use has been especially useful when waiting has been hard as it can finish at any point. One day recently when my daughter’s anxiety was high about waiting for a programme on TV to start we used this pop it game to take the focus off the time and keep her calm.

Seeing positives 

My daughter really struggles with anxiety and misunderstanding social communication. She can have a tendency to dwell on negativity and hyper-focus on things that might go wrong more than anything positive. I often find her alone on her bed sitting with her fingers popping one of her favourite pop it toys repeating something negative over and over. So I sit with her and she’ll tell me about a teacher that upset her that day, a child who looked at her the wrong way, a sum she got wrong in maths and so on. I would get her to pop one bubble for every different scenario of her day until she felt she’d got to bedtime. Then I’d start at the other side of the same pop it, or at the bottom and I’d get her to think of positive things from the same day. Did anyone say good morning to her? Had the teacher said well done that day? Had a child playing with her? One by one we’d press another bubble for each positive until she came to the end of her day again. 

Almost every time when we counted the bad things and the good things she actually found, very visibly, that in fact her day hadn’t been anything like as bad as she had realised. The visual aspect helped her see that while bad things do happen so do good things and now she’ll often say when I pick her up from school that in her head she popped some bad bubbles but that she also remembers popping good ones too. 

As a calming tool

Emotions can be overwhelming and confusing for many autistic children (and adults) and finding a release from sensory overload is essential. While ear defenders, blackout tents, punch bags and so on have their place sometimes these just can’t be so easily accessed and it’s good to have a portable small item that has the ability to calm and soothe quickly.  When my daughter found the noise in a shop too much one day I got her safely outside and we used her favourite pop it to help her breathe slower and calm down by simply redirecting her stress into something more productive and safe. ‘Let’s sit and count 20 pops shall we?’ Then when she was starting to calm she counted 20 more until her body and mind felt calmer and safer and we were able to try again. 

Pop it toys are cheap, collectable, and colourful and are as individual as every child but to my autistic daughter they are much more than silicon or plastic pads that feel and sound like bubble wrap but a real tool for helping her self calm, interact with others and boost her mental health. They are fast becoming one of her most treasured fidget toys because of their versatility and their addictive soothing properties. 

They may be trending on TikTok, YouTube and in school playgrounds everywhere but for my autistic child, they are not just the latest trend in fidgets but her favourite tool that helps her in a confusing and overwhelming world. 

I wish they’d been around when I was a kid too! 

Autumn Activities for the Senses

Autumn is such a wonderful time of year for sensory play. It really is the easiest time to incorporate all the senses into activities. We have had so much fun exploring autumn that we wanted to share some of our favourite activities with you.


We tried something a little different this autumn and used some different coloured pasta shapes. I found them in the supermarket. They were lovely colours, browns, yellows, oranges and a lovely dark purple colour. We added them to a tray and then hid some pinecones in them. Super easy but makes a lovely sound on the tray when moved and the different textures gave great sensory feedback.


Scented playdough is perfect for this time of year. We added some mixed spice to our playdough which gave a lovely extra sensory experience. We also added cinnamon sticks to play with, dried pasta and googly eyes meaning we could make wonderful sensory hedgehogs.


We had so much fun enjoying hot chocolates together. This always warms us up on an autumn walk or when we get home. Ethan has to have his dairy-free and thickened but we have adapted it so he can still join in. If your child doesn’t eat orally why not add some hot chocolate powder to a tray and allow them to explore in the powder smelling it and getting the aroma that way.


We really enjoyed playing an animal sound game. You could tailor this yourself to just animals you find in the autumn, but we enjoyed all of the animals as I always think of animals in the autumn! Some off to hibernate, some scurrying around collecting food for the winter and some hunting for their food in the wide oceans.


We love to take a beautiful autumnal walk through the woods to explore all the leaves on the trees. There is so much to see and explore. All the colours are wonderful. Allow the children to touch the bushes, pick up the leaves, scrunch through the leaves on the floor. We always collect leaves and post a stick through them so they are easy to carry. At home, we put some fairy lights in amongst our leaves that we found and had a good explore with an added visual experience with them.

I Don’t Want to Say We’re ‘Fine’

How are you? Probably the most ubiquitous conversation starter, right? I bet we each hear this no less than five times a day, sometimes many times more. It’s meant to be a lighthearted inquiry, and often it’s used as a mere phrase, without much meaning attached. After all, doesn’t the asker usually expect the response to be, “I’m fine, how are you?”

In saying there is no meaning attached to asking this question, I might be overly cynical. I’ll grant that. It’s likely true that some people don’t really know any other way to start a conversation, or it’s so ingrained a habit that they don’t realize they’re saying it half the time. Still, others do ask it with sincerity, and they are hoping for an honest answer.

Do you have a typical answer to this question? I don’t. I’m one of those annoying people that always, always, think about my answer before giving it. And, because I’m not good at concealing my emotions, I usually answer with blunt honesty. If something is going poorly, that’s what I say. If there was a highlight to the week, I’ll talk about it. You get the picture.

I’m usually speaking on behalf of my whole family though, so I do try to take them all into consideration and not just talk about myself. For my son, in particular, we are seen as a unit, not really separate from one another. For this reason, though sometimes the question is aimed at me, usually it’s implied that I’m going to answer for him as well.

So, special needs boy and mom unit, how are you?

We all know the answer to that, if we are speaking frankly, can and will vary wildly from one moment to the next. There are physical and social obstacles, medical interventions, education proficiency questions, language barriers, goals met, abilities stagnated, friends gained or lost, mental exhaustion, joyful interactions, and on. My response to everything going on can also vary wildly depending on my perspective. Or my son’s. Or both.

I feel a bit guilty for those on the receiving end of my answers at times. I’ve probably made more than a few people uncomfortable with my own lack of filter. But I really can’t help it; I’ll probably never say “I’m fine” and move on because if I say that, people might stop asking.

Mental Health And Special Needs Parenting

World Mental Health Day was on 10th October and it has prompted me to blog about my own experience of mental ill-health. For obvious reasons, it’s a deeply personal subject so I’ll try my best to be as open and honest as possible without being too much.

I was diagnosed with anxiety when my triplets were around six months old. One of the babies has spina bifida and hydrocephalus and I’d just had my worst ever relapse of my Multiple Sclerosis. I just felt totally overwhelmed and remember sitting in front of my doctor and saying “I’m scared for Jacob all the time, I can’t stop worrying I’ll lose him.” He was amazing and gently let me explain how I was just not coping with the demands that were in front of me or the emotional load of having a beautiful little boy with complex health needs. He then told me part of the problem was the fact I was a trained nurse so was always watching for clinical signs when I should be enjoying being a mummy. He also said he’d be more worried if I hadn’t gone to see him. We worked out a management plan together and I felt so much better for it.

In saying that, I think anxiety will always be something I will have to manage instead of something I can be cured of. I’m sure a lot of special needs parents will relate completely to this because it is terrifying to have such love for a little person who may be very unwell at times. Seven years on, I believe my anxiety is better managed but I still take medication for it and I still find certain things will flare it massively such as Jacob (or his siblings!) being unwell. There are some “traits” recognised in people with mental health difficulties that I also experience.

For example, I have what doctors like to call “catastrophic thinking” which basically means if Jacob has a simple cold, I’ll always have a nagging voice telling me I’m missing a shunt blockage/malfunction and he’s going to die. If my MS is bad one day, I’ll always feel that it’s this exact day that I’ll be unable to walk anymore. I sometimes feel that people, even good friends or family, think the absolute worst of me. My rational brain knows all of these things are unlikely, but my anxiety will take a small thing and blow it up massively. I’ve had to learn how to step back and ask myself “Is this possible? Is it true? Could this be anxiety-driven?”.

I also find it hard to switch my brain off. I overthink everything. I forget why I walk into a room at times because of my MS (and possibly having triplets…) but could tell you what I said wrong in a conversation from a decade ago. I’ll worry about what will happen if I can’t stick to a commitment I have made and whether or not I’ll be believed if I’m unwell. Night times are the worst for this resulting in insomnia, which is obviously very unhelpful (everything is worse without sleep isn’t it?!). We have a camera for Jacob’s nocturnal seizures and I end up watching it sometimes just checking he is breathing. It is truly so terrifying.

Apparently, a happy Mum (and/or dad or caregiver) can literally almost “immunise” your kids against mental health challenges by teaching healthy coping mechanisms. We talk a lot about feelings in our house- what they are, why we have them, the fact they are normal and healthy ways to cope with them. Jacob now sees a counsellor himself and as she put it, we all want our kids to grow up in a world where they’d never face any hardships, but that’s just not realistic. So it’s our job to show them HOW to manage in healthy ways when things go wrong. That’s now what I try to teach our kids and what I am constantly trying to practice myself.

5 Tips for the Holiday Break

We have just come back from a lovely little family holiday. One we haven’t done altogether for 6 years! I thought I would share some of the top tips that helped us whilst we were away. 

Battery Blender 

We recently discovered a battery-powered blender that was perfect for meals out. Ethan can bite and chew soft foods but bigger meals including meat and some veg are just not manageable for him. We were able to order whatever he wanted and pop it in the blender at our table. No need for a PowerPoint, just press the button and away it went. I needed to add a little extra water than usual and we split his dinner up into two portions, but it worked perfectly for us and meant Ethan could join in with dinner with us! 

Swim Showers 

Where we stayed had a wet room but it didn’t have a hoist or changing bed. In the swimming pool area, they had a shower with a wet stretched bed. We booked our swim sessions on the first and last day of the weekend so that Ethan could have his showers without the struggle of us having to shower him on the floor. It saved us a lot of hassle and made Ethan more comfortable. 

Always Ask 

We found that on a couple of occasions rather than making do we just mentioned needing a space to park or extra allocated time and this helped us to be able to be given a special pass to park where we wanted and time to enjoy experiences better. It’s always better to ask rather than suffer in silence. What your asking for is usually something someone has asked for before anyway. 

Be Prepared 

Before we went away I got in contact with the place we were staying to clarify a few things about our trip. This meant that when we got there we weren’t hanging around waiting to access a special chair for swimming because they already knew we would need it so they were prepared for us. It made transitions a lot smoother and meant we got lots more time to make memories instead. 


The biggest thing for Ethan whilst we were away was downtime, even the girls and we needed this too. We made sure there were plenty of opportunities to chill in between activities and food. Ethan enjoyed a sneaky little nap which he doesn’t do at home during his downtime. It gave him time to not be overstimulated and time to be ready for when we headed out next. 

Help Your Child Experience the World!

Experiences during a child’s first 2-3 years of life can have an effect on later school achievement.Early experience in life creates brain circuits, learning, and overall well-being.  Look at all the systems that impact a child’s brain and nervous system (Courtesy of Harvard.edu)


  1. Information is gathered from the environment, from a child’s senses, and sent up to the brain. 
  2. The brain processes the information.
  3. The brain sends a response.
  4. If plan A doesn’t work, this loop is repeated and a plan B is created. And so on….And so on…. This loop begins at birth and is refined over time, based on a child’s experiences. 

Therefore, think about these principles:

  1. Set up an environment that lets a child learn in their own way on their own time.
  2. Let your child experience as much as they can.  These experiences are an opportunity to learn.
  3. Consistent routines are helpful for a child’s development.  They know what’s coming first, then next, and the expected outcome.
  4. Chronic conditions are stressors for everyone. Make sure that you stay calm and breathe!  Self regulation is not only essential for a child, it’s also an important quality to have for adults.  Chronic stressors can contribute to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, mental health issues, and internal inflammation. All of which can be positively impacted by finding joy.

Your child’s brain development starts in utero but continues to morph through the first years of life.  A child that lives in a supportive environment, that’s full of learning opportunities and experiences will feel more, think more, and react more.   A rich environment and daily learning opportunities for the brain and body to feel can only help your child.  If a caretaker or parent would like more information about setting up a sensory-rich environment, contact a pediatric physical or occupational therapist for helpful hints.

Dr Sharon Galitzer, pediatric physical therapist

Ready, Set, Play!

Inclusive options should be available at all recreation centres

Here in the middle of the U.S., the leaves are falling and temperatures are dropping, which can only mean one thing: winter is right around the corner. During the cold weather months, many of us spend more time (a lot more time) inside our homes. But when the cabin fever sets in, it’s nice to venture out with the kids to a favourite recreation centre.

Our family is blessed to live in a community with many options for indoor fun. We have children’s museums, planetariums, movie theatres, indoor gyms, trampoline parks and even indoor water parks. Everything is accessible to wheelchair users, so that’s a great start. Many options are low cost or free, and to this frugal mom, that’s even better.

Unfortunately, not everything is available to my son with cerebral palsy. A few simple tweaks could really help him and other additional needs kids to have just as much fun as their peers.

First, put some of the rotating new exhibits on the first floor of the facility! This would be awesome at the places that don’t have elevators. Trampoline parks have a bevvy of soft helmets available for rent! Cleaning those dozen or so that would get used isn’t a big deal (it’s got to take less time than sanitizing all those trampolines, right?), and a helmet could be the difference between someone getting to jump safely and not getting to at all. Similarly, water parks can rent life jackets of different kinds for those who need one. Some of our kids really just want to float, but need extra support that specialized life jackets provide.

At the very simplest of solutions is for facilities to offer a weekly day that only special needs kids can attend. More staff could be on hand, and softer music played, light shows slowed down or otherwise modified for reducing sensory overload. A smaller capacity of attendees would allow more space for those kids using walkers or other equipment to get around. And if the business isn’t sure how to modify the facility, they can inquire of parents through a website survey.

Do you have a favourite recreation centre that could use some modifications? Write them a letter or submit an inquiry via their website! Advocating can be as simple as that, and could help all our kids to get out and play like they want to.

4 Ways On How I Do It

I don’t think there will be a parent, especially a special needs parent, who hasn’t heard the phrase “I don’t know how you do it!”. I have. When I was pregnant with our triplets, although then it was generally “oh no, I hope you’ve lots of help!” or other negative comments. I told a lady in marks and spencers I was having triplets once and she literally just stood with her mouth wide open and then walked away in shock. Charming.

So…how do I do it? Here are a few ways.

  1. It takes a village

It is so true what they say about it taking a village. When the babies were born, they spent their first few weeks in a baby unit because they were premature. The nurses, doctors and healthcare assistants became our support since family members (except their Nannys!) weren’t allowed in. As the years have gone on, I got paid support in the form of a “personal assistant” which is a title unworthy of what Natasha and then Debbie did for us. They are both still valued friends. The kids also have a wide family who loves them and my Mum in particular is with us most days to help, especially with the limitations imposed by my MS.

  1. Routine

For us, the routine has been the key from day one. The amazing nurses in the baby unit had the babies on four hourly feeds before we brought them home in an attempt to help us cope. We stuck to that for most of the time we were bottle feeding (breast was NOT best for us) and it worked brilliantly. Even now, when they are nearly seven, we keep them in a pretty set routine. It has changed as the kids’ needs have, but it works for us all to have a routine. I also write things down, especially Jacob’s epilepsy, so I have a “grab and go” pack ready in case routine breaks and he needs to be transferred to the hospital.

  1. I have fewer friends

I remember a time when travelling in a car would have caused Jacob to have a seizure which inevitably needed his rescue medication then possibly an ambulance. Nobody knew why it happened because he wasn’t photosensitive! I wasn’t happy to drive with the kids alone but also wasn’t willing to be away from home by myself because Jacob was just so unwell during that time of his life. I tried to explain this to a group of really cherished friends at one stage and for whatever reason, it was taken in a way I’d not intended at all. Nobody in the situation had any ill intent, but for reasons I still don’t understand, we no longer speak. You will likely lose friends you never thought you would in your journey as a special needs parent, but you’ll also meet so many amazing people.

  1. Me time

I’m in that slightly unbelievable period when the kids are out at school and I have time to myself again during the day! At first, I was quite lost about what to do and felt on constant “alert” in case Jacob took unwell. He has settled into his new class so well though, and with his epilepsy being much more stable I am taking more time to do things I enjoy. My amazing cousin has loaned me her beautiful horse and I am meeting new people through him and enjoying riding again whenever my health allows.

The truth is, you’ll never know how someone else does it because no matter how close you may be, you don’t live their lives. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. So I try to be understanding of others and learn from my mistakes (there have been a LOT!). Mostly though, I just keep moving forwards with my beautiful family!

John Lewis Christmas Advert 2021: Showcasing Inclusion

They have done it again! Watching the John Lewis Christmas 2021 advert had me welling up in tears as I saw, once again, a story of inclusion unfolding before me. Like in 2019 with the story of Edgar the dragon and his friend Ava, the new advert showcases how to be inclusive of someone who is different.

As I watched Nathan reach out to Skye, the space alien that had crash-landed near his home, the ways that he made a difference for her gives us some great lessons in how we can do the same for anyone, whatever ways they might be different from us. Their story could easily relate to someone who is a child refugee, or a child with additional needs, for example.

Here are some of the things that Nathan did to make a difference for Skye that touched me:

  1. He noticed and made the effort to check

Nathan saw Skye’s spaceship crash land. It would have been easy to ignore what he had seen, but he didn’t, he followed up and made the effort to check it out. So often if we see something happen it is easier for us to look the other way, to not get involved, to leave it to someone else to help. Nathan took the time to go and check out what he had seen for himself, he noticed and got involved.

  • He was initially afraid, but he went back

When Nathan finds Skye initially he is afraid, but then he decides to go back again; he overcomes his uncertainty. Sometimes people can be afraid of difference, and remain afraid, unwilling to see beyond the difference and to see the person. To challenge themselves about why they are afraid. Nathan teaches us that we can overcome this uncertainty and fear and see the person too.

  • He learned to communicate with Skye

Nathan found a way to connect with Skye, to reach out to her. He mirrors her own communication to show that he wants to be her friend. People might use a different language, or communicate in alternative ways; Nathan shows us that if we try then anyone can adapt to the ways of communicating that other people use.

  • He met Skye’s needs

Nathan realised that Skye must be hungry, so he snuck out with some food for her. It can be easy to overlook the basic needs that people might have, especially if they have limited resources of their own. Nathan teaches us to be observant and to meet the needs of people who have less than us or have an immediate need.

  • He had fun with Skye

Nathan and Skye become friends and enjoy spending time together, overcoming their differences to find each other in a snowball fight and watching a film. Sometimes there is a perception that people who are very different to us can’t be our friends, but Nathan and Skye dispel that myth and show us that genuine friendship can blossom anywhere.

  • He missed her when she went away

When Skye has to go home, Nathan misses his new friend. Sometimes there can be an unfortunate sense of relief in certain settings if, for example, a child with additional needs doesn’t come to the club one week. Nathan shows us those genuine relationships, allowing us to really appreciate and care for everyone, which means that if anyone isn’t there then they are really missed.

So, let’s learn together this Christmas. Let’s notice people who are different to us and make an effort to get to know them, finding that they are really just like us in so many ways. Let’s not be afraid of difference, but let’s embrace it. Let’s learn to communicate in whatever ways we, and the person we’re with, needs us to. Let’s help to meet people’s needs. Let’s break down barriers and have fun together. And let’s miss each other for all the right reasons when we can’t be together.

Here’s the link to the John Lewis Christmas 2021 advert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTttgc0DPA4

See also:

Why Children With Additional Needs Are Like Edgar The Dragon