Heavy Work: A Beneficial Occupational Therapy for Autism

Activites for children with autism

As part of our occupational therapy for autism, we often use heavy work activities. If you’ve been on our blog for long, or if your child was diagnosed with autism a while ago, you are probably no stranger to the concept of proprioception and heavy work activities. However, if your child was diagnosed recently, the term heavy work may raise some eyebrows. The occupational therapists and recreational therapists at the Springbrook residential autism program recommend lots of heavy work as part of your child’s balanced sensory diet—but that doesn’t mean your child should be on a construction crew after school. When we talk about heavy work, we mean work in the scientific sense of force exerted to move an object, and heavy refers to some kind of weight or resistance.

The main reason you should incorporate heavy work activities into your child’s day is because they build up the major muscle groups, joints, and ligaments, stimulate the proprioceptive receptors present in these tissues, and provide your child with greater proprioceptive feedback.

Proprioception is the sense that allows your body to know where it is and how it’s moving in space so that we can walk up stairs without looking at each step or take a sip of water without watching the glass all the way. Proprioception develops throughout our lifetime, which is why older children are usually more coordinated and less clumsy than toddlers.

All children need heavy work activities to strengthen the proprioceptive input that their muscles and joints send to their nervous systems and improve their motor coordination, but children with autism generally have underdeveloped proprioception, meaning they need heavy work even more. As an added benefit, heavy work tends to provide deep pressure to the muscles, which has a calming and organizing effect on the brain and nervous system. If you’ve ever noticed that you have a greater ability to focus after an intense workout, you’ve experienced this effect. Finally, heavy work reduces problem behaviors in children with autism.  

Here are some good ways to include heavy work in your daily routines:

Play Activities

Heavy work activities can actually be a lot of fun! Many playtime activities use the major muscle groups, both in coordination and separately. Remember to combine weight with movement to reap the most organizing, calming benefits from the deep pressure stimulation. As you plan playtime for your child, keep these kinds of movements in mind:

  • Jumping and Crashing. Any kind of jumping activity engages the lower body and activates proprioceptive input in the leg muscles and joints, while “crashing” activities engage the entire body. Try jump rope, hopscotch, bouncing on trampolines, or jumping and crashing into bed mattresses, piles of couch cushions, or large pillows. This may drive you crazy—but it’s so good for the kids! If you don’t want to put your furniture at risk, go to a trampoline park that includes foam pits and obstacle courses, which combine a lot of different heavy work activities in one place. Older kids may also enjoy wrestling, kickboxing, and organized sports activities.
  • Digging and Pouring. Playing in a sandbox or at a water table, searching for treasure in the backyard, or building a snowman all provide excellent heavy work for the upper body while also improving hand-eye coordination. Make sure your child has plenty of little shovels, scoopers, and buckets and encourage lots of pouring from one container to another. Choose larger containers for more heavy work. Consider burying trinkets and toys in the sand and see how many your child can find. For a good rainy day activity, fill a large bin with rice or dry beans and bury toys for your child to find. Swimming or any kind of water play also uses the digging muscles.
  • Climbing and Hanging. Playgrounds are a great place to go for climbing and hanging equipment. Jungle gyms, monkey bars, climbing walls, and ladders use all of your child’s major muscle groups in coordination and provide wonderful proprioceptive input, while hanging by the arms or the legs stretches out the muscles and engages the joints and ligaments. At home, you can encourage your child to try climbing a tree, playing in a treehouse, playing on a rope swing, or climbing in and out of a bunk bed.
  • Pushing, Pulling, and Throwing. Try tug-of-war games, sledding, pulling a wagon, pushing a friend or sibling on a swing, or push-ups. Playing catch is also an ideal way to warm up the arms and shoulders. If your child doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to play catch with a glove and baseball, that’s alright. Try bean bags, medicine balls (carefully!), water balloons, a basketball, or any large, soft object like a big pillow or stuffed animal. The goal is for your child to encounter some resistance while catching and have to heave some weight while throwing. Ask your child to throw stuffed animals or pillows into a laundry basket to improve hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills while doing heavy work.
  • Running, Crawling, and Pedaling. While not all children enjoy running for its own sake, this activity stimulates every muscle group and does some heavy proprioceptive work in the legs. If your child doesn’t naturally like to run while playing, start small with short, fun foot races. Race your kid to the car after grocery shopping, for example. You can also do funny walks and crawls with your child, such as stomping in place, wheelbarrow walks, animal walks like crab walks and bear walks, snake slithers, and army crawls. Finally, riding bikes is an excellent heavy work activity. If your child can’t ride a bike yet or is afraid to try, start out with scooters, balance bikes, or other self-propelled riding toys. You can even use a large skateboard that your child sits or lies down on while scooting forward with his feet or hands.

Household Chores

Kids love helping out around the house, especially if the chores are active enough and presented to them correctly. Make use of household chores to ensure that your child is getting enough muscle and joint input throughout the day—and always remember that the work doesn’t have to be done perfectly. You aren’t using your child to help you get tasks done, you are using the tasks to help your child!

  • Washing the car. Give your kids a bucket and some big sponges and encourage them to put some elbow grease into it. If washing the car devolves into a water and soap fight, that’s OK!
  • Setting the table. Ask your child to help you set a place for each person. Carrying plates and silverware, setting each place, and scooping ice into glasses all qualify as heavy work. As a bonus, you can use this time to discuss food and mealtime rituals.
  • Carrying Groceries. Kids love to see what you bought! Ask your child to help you carry in groceries, sort them, and put them away for heavy work and important bonding time. At the store, carrying a basket or pushing a kid-sized cart provides proprioceptive input.
  • Vacuuming. Any activity that involves pushing, pulling, dragging, or scooping gives your child a lot of proprioceptive stimulation. Other activities in this category include pushing a wheelbarrow, raking leaves, dragging branches to a pile, sweeping, and mopping.
  • Laundry. After you’ve folded laundry, let your child carry the laundry basket and put the laundry away. Loading and unloading the washer and dryer is also a fantastic way to get some heavy work into the day—plus, kids enjoy turning knobs and pushing buttons.
  • Helping with Trash. Carrying trash bags outside, pushing the trash can to the curb, and collecting and sorting recyclables are all excellent ways for your child to do some heavy work and get more proprioceptive feedback from muscles and joints.
  • Outdoor Work. If your child is old enough for it, outdoor work is one of the best ways to increase proprioceptive feedback. Ask your kid to bring in firewood, mow the lawn, move brush or rocks, or shovel snow. Even younger children can so small outdoor tasks with appropriately-sized tools.
  • Helping in the Kitchen. What kid doesn’t like making brownies? Get your child involved with stirring thick batter, rolling out pizza crusts, shredding cheese, peeling fruits, and other age-appropriate food prep to build upper body strength and coordination.

Of course, these lists are a good place to start, but neither list is exhaustive. The important thing is to find weight-bearing and movement activities that you child enjoys and build from there. With a little planning and effort, you can make sure that your child gets enough activity and heavy proprioceptive work during the day.

We would love to help your child succeed. In addition to heavy work, we use a number of proven, evidence-based autism therapies to address problem behaviors and build life skills. Contact the ABA Program at Springbrook to learn more.