Allowing ourselves to participate in and explore self-soothing activities is a huge part of all of our lives. We do it without realising; it’s within our nature. Despite what it may sound like, it’s not as simple, nor is it just, ‘Self-Care’. It’s actually allowing the body to process all the information entering and leaving it and keeping it balanced in a careful equilibrium. The information I’m referring to is, of course, sensory information which is picked up by cells and your nerves 24/7 and is continually being processed as well.
Many people can keep this equilibrium fairly stable by themselves in everyday life, no matter how chaotic. Many people also struggle with it, especially those recognised as ‘neurodivergent’ like myself. With some neurodivergent conditions, in particular, the way that sensory information is picked up and processed is completely different, thus can lead to sensory overload (or overwhelm, overstimulation) or being understimulated.
A self-soothe kit, or sensory kit, can be useful for anyone and everyone. In short, it’s a box or collection of items that help you achieve that equilibrium again after being under or over-stimulated. I know how it sounds, but it’s not just for autistic people. Everyone gets over and understimulated somehow by something, and there’s always a way to help resolve it, hence me writing this (hopefully useful) guide for you. I learnt most of this information from fellow autistic people and I was also taught a lot about self-soothing when I was under an Acute Day Service at my local mental health hospital.
The reason why I also refer to this as a ‘sensory box‘ is because you essentially need at least one thing that satisfies each of the five senses. To remind you, that’s:
Not everyone has something from each ‘sense’ that they like, and that’s okay because what is included in the kit is something that helps eliminate that negative connotation when in contact with it. For instance, disliking loud noise or music could mean that maybe some ear defenders or noise-cancelling headphones belong in your kit to help eliminate those sounds.
This section is about finding things that keep your auditory equilibrium happy! I’ve written one example above already, but about if you like noise? Noise lovers can have a go with some of the following:
- Headphones for listening to music
- Your favourite vinyl/CDs/whatever media you listen to your favourite things on
- Consider using a white noise machine (or making a playlist). Some people really love these, I know some people that can’t sleep or concentrate without white noise.
- Similar to above, but also rain sounds, forest sounds, any soundscape type thing. There are tonnes online from all sorts of places. They always remind me of a spa, when they play the music to help relax you.
Just be wary that when listening to music, particularly with headphones, you don’t play anything too loud for too long as this can irreversibly damage your hearing.
Noise haters, as I said before, ear defenders and noise-cancelling headphones are amazing. Anything you can get or do to escape the noise, do it. I use the Edz Kidz Adult Ear Defenders, they are quite big and bulky on me however so I’m taking recommendations for new ones! And my headphones are great too, I have the Bose QuietComfort 35II. On the pricey side, yes, but I managed to grab some secondhand so that’s always a good option if you’re tight for cash. Previously, I used the Beats Solo Pro which are also noise cancelling, the only letdown on my part was that I couldn’t sleep with them as one of the sides was a giant pause button so if I rolled over and I was playing music, it would stop or skip weirdly.
Too bright, or too dark? We can fix that. I struggle with things being very bright and hurting my head, although unfortunately, I don’t really take my own advice when it comes to this. I would recommend sunglasses, yes even when it’s not sunny because it makes everything not so bright which is the aim. I wear glasses and do not have prescription sunglasses so I don’t feel comfortable wearing sunglasses when I’m out because I’d rather be able to see where I’m going. In general, though, my room is quite dark (despite it being painted white) which helps, except when I’m taking photos. It’s annoying when I’m taking pictures!
In addition to that, I have a galaxy light and LEDs so that when I need light to do something with, but the ‘big light’ is too much, it’s the perfect middle ground. Plus, it looks pretty! I guess this could help both people who struggle with bright lights and people who struggle with darkness. For those who struggle with darkness, I’d recommend a lamp or nightlight. There are also lamps called body clock lamps, sunlight lamps or SAD lamps, which are helpful in managing seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but they provide a nice glow for when you need it. I have one myself, the Lumie Bodyclock – Lumie have several in their range with a range of prices too. I probably should have mentioned this before now, but I’ll add some useful links at the end of the post!
Visual can also incorporate things like books and photographs, things that you physically look at. It can be very comforting to look at photos of you and your family, friends, pets or anything you like, and it can be equally as comforting curling up with your favourite book to escape from reality! A colouring book or puzzle book is also a really good idea as this gives you something to look at but also something to do with your hands, thus distracting you from whatever is overwhelming you.
Positive quotes or affirmations are a must-have too, even if you think they’re a bit ridiculous because sometimes it’s just what you need. I have several packs, some I made myself, some made for me by a friend and some bought for me. I used to have an Etsy store with some, but not at the moment. However, I do still have some stock so I may be able to set up an e-commerce site here… Watch this space I guess!
What I tend to associate with taste is that you are only usually irritated by tastes that you dislike, but actually as I type this I’m thinking that you can easily have too much of a taste even if you do like it. After a while of eating sweet things, sometimes you get bored and need something savoury. Taste can also be used as a grounding technique, for some people chewing mint helps them feel focused and relaxed.
Some things that you could include in a kit or box to help satisfy your ‘taste’ sense include:
- Tea/Teabags if you have a favourite tea. Other than standard ‘English Breakfast’ tea, I like the Pukka Vanilla Chai tea. They also do a lot of other flavours if you’re interested!
- The same goes for coffee sachets or powder. Beanies Coffee do loads of good flavoured coffee sachets as well as Nescafe!
- Chewing gum/mint, again these can have several flavours as well as different ‘types’ of mint. For instance, you could have strawberry gum or fruit mentos/soft fruits if mint isn’t your favourite. I like mint mentos, but for some reason, I struggle with mint toothpaste!
- Small snacks or drinks that have a long shelf life, the reason I suggest the longer shelf life is so that they can be kept in a kit or box and accessed when needed without the increased risk of it going off.
There isn’t a lot more to say about taste, you probably get the idea though. Just remember that smell and touch (textures etc.) are closely related to taste, so ensure whatever you decide doesn’t trigger another sense badly.
I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if this is a universal thing, but the ‘touch’ sense is very important to me and also quite complex. I can very easily get completely overwhelmed by the slightest thing near me, but then I also go through stages of needing to be touching something (usually with my hands). Body temperature regulation can also come under this sense as it affects the way your body physically feels.
Let’s start with techniques to help you avoid touch, bare in mind that some of this is just general advice and you may not be able to physically put it in a box:
- Try and discover ways in order to escape a situation where touch may be overwhelming if needed.
- This could range from noting where exits are
- Staying ‘close’ to a friend, who can help you leave
- If getting overwhelmed, particularly by touch (or any sense), you could consider carrying a small card/flashcard type thing which explains that you need to leave the situation that you can discreetly show someone (see the end of the post)
- You could also try having something to hand that you really like the feel of, as this could counteract any negative feelings or overstimulation. This isn’t always possible, it depends on what exactly it is that you like of course!
- If you know you may be in a situation where you could potentially get overstimulated, you could try and plan to wear something comfortable so that it doesn’t add to the discomfort or overstimulation. Of course, overstimulation is not something that can always be planned for in advance, and some situations don’t allow much flexibility when it comes to clothing, but as general advice, you can try cutting labels out of clothes if you struggle with them or sometimes older children’s clothes can be softer if you struggle with that (I realise though that this solution isn’t suitable for everyone, so alternatively you could perhaps try a fabric softener depending on whether you are sensitive to them or not or if it triggers another sense such as smell too much)
This next part is to help with when you need to be touching something, but could also help you with ideas for one of my previous points about finding something you like to hold. I think this is sometimes referred to as ‘tactile‘ which is being connected to or designed to be touched. Not going to lie, this is my favourite bit because I can now talk about fidget toys which are very within my niche:
- Tangle toy – absolute classic and there are so many different types now! For those who don’t know, it’s a small plastic toy that can be held in your hand and twisted or played with. Tangles are definitely among some of my favourite things! Some different types include:
- Tangle Jr: simple, basic, plastic Tangle. Within this range, there are also Fuzzy Tangles which have felt on them, Metallic Tangles which have a metallic coating, Tangle Jr Crazy which has some links that are textured differently, and Tangle Pets which are very similar to the crazy ones except they are based on animals and the Tangle Hairy which is a bit like a Koosh ball if you’ve ever seen one of them (it has silicone-like ‘hairs’ which are stretchy and tactile!). All come in multiple colours.
- Palm Tangle: identical to the ordinary plastic or metallic Tangle Jr, except bigger. All come in multiple colours.
- Tangle Therapy, Think, Relax & Imagine:
- The Tangle Therapy and Think are identical apart from colour. They are made up of bigger, wider links than the Tangle Jr and are also covered in a bumpy silicone/rubber-like surface which to me feels a lot better than it sounds. They come in three colours
- The Tangle Relax and Imagine are also identical except for colour. They are the same as the ones described above, except they are the same size as the Tangle Jr. Also come in three colours.
- There may be other tangles, for instance, I think there’s one that lights up (Atomic?), but these are the ones I have.
- If tangles aren’t for you, don’t fret, there are alternatives. Something I have in my box is a couple of small soft toys because they’re nice to touch and are comforting. I have a couple of Disney Tsum Tsums in there as me and my friends used to collect them a little when we were younger and we’d buy them for each other and I think I still have at least most of mine! When I go out I sometimes take a small Jellycat toy with me or my ‘mood’ octopus (the ones you can turn inside out, mine’s called Olivia).
- There are also stress balls that can be used, or toy shops tend to sell squishy things in many different forms. I have a banana somewhere, a peach and I’ve seen ones that resemble avocados and pickles and literal faeces!
- This may sound strange but sand timers! You can hold them but also they can be relaxing to look at. I have a gel timer thing that works in the same way and the colours look so pretty!
- As mentioned earlier, colouring books or puzzle books are always a good distraction if you need something to do with your hands!
- Small plastic puzzle toys such as a Rubix cube or Magic Snake are also fun and distracting!
- Some things that are actually considered baby toys are very good sensory-wise. I have the Manhattan Toy Co. Wooden Beads and they’re really nice!
- Weighted Blankets can be an absolute game-changer in overstimulation! Some people need that feeling of pressure. I’ve had one for a couple of years now, just remember to get one suitable for your weight – it shouldn’t be any heavier than 10% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 55kg your blanket should weigh no more than 5.5kg. Some sites weigh in pounds so it’s best to check the conversion if you don’t already know.
Finally, in terms of touch, there’s temperature regulation. If you hugely dislike being cold then it might be useful to have hand warmers, gloves, blankets, and hot water bottles depending on what your specific sensory needs are. If you hugely dislike being warm, sometimes something gel-based can be cooling, or perhaps one of the instant ice packs that are activated by shaking (we had them at school I believe). I actually have a gel makeup sponge in my box as it can be quite cooling and soothing sometimes.
This was quite a big section, hope it wasn’t too much!
Smells can be overwhelming, but familiar smells can be calming. If smells are something you really don’t like, it still may be useful to try and find something that has a smell you do like in order to counteract any overstimulation by smell. This could even just be a toy or item of clothing etc that reminds you of someone or something.
If smells are something you want more of, then refer to the following list:
- Small bottles of essential oils are quite easy to get hold of. The most common or popular smells tend to be Lavender, Eucalyptus and Menthol. All of these are generally used in holistic & herbal medicine. Lavender has been linked to sleep, and Eucalyptus and Menthol are commonly used in cold remedies such as Vicks Vapourub and cough/throat sweets and sprays. Be aware that some of these can be toxic to pets so check before hand!
- Most essential oils can be found in rollerball too, and on the topic of rollerballs, many perfumes come in that form too. They’re compact and rarely leak so you can throw it in your bag and then perhaps rub a bit on you wrists if needed.
- Most essential oils come in spray for as well. I got a Lavender spray from ThisWorks for Christmas and my mum sprays my pillow and whatever toy I’m cuddling that night for me!
- There are many techniques for having relaxing smells around your home, including
- Reed Diffusers
- Wax Burners
- Ultimately in that sense it comes down to what you’re most comfortable with and the limitations of wherever you live (for example candles can not be lit in most university accommodations).
- Fabric softener can also be good for having clothes or a toy that has a smell you like.
I think that sums it up really, I do hope it was useful. I have some resources and websites to share with you in case you are stuck with anything:
Quick Links Guide
I mentioned having a flashcard to show someone when you’re in a situation you need to get out of. I created some little wallet-sized ‘Crisis Cards’ that I think would be perfect for this, and they’re HERE in my blog shop. They’re very inexpensive but a valuable resource, I think. I carry mine everywhere! ( I also have some ‘seconds’ with a slight printing misalignment slightly cheaper HERE)
Downloads & Printables
↑ This is a handy checklist that I have created for you to download (and print!) with several suggestions of what you could include in your self-soothe kit. If anything, it’s a place to start!
↑ Disclaimer: I’m probably not meant to share that PowerPoint with you so shh, but this is the resource that was given to me in one of my groups and I thought it would be helpful to see if my post was a bit confusing.
Mood Cards – Very useful for understanding and tackling emotions 🙂
Example of a White Noise Machine – Amazon – There are also ones available with different sounds
Small Ear Defenders – Tink n’ Stink – I think I might try these next
John Lewis Weighted Blanket – Just be aware that this is an example, and there are cheaper alternatives
Deep Freeze Cooling Gel – Amazon – Technically a pain reliever, but could help!
Calpol Vapour Plug – Boots – Diffuser Example that’s fairly affordable
If you have any other links or resources you may like, don’t hesitate to ask, and I can add them. I realise that this is quite a hefty post, but I hope it is useful to someone!