Do Special Chairs Help Children with Autism?

Updated: Mar 21, 2019


originally written for Harkla.co

When looking at seating options for children with autism, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. Some seats offer sensory input and mobility in the form of wiggling, bouncing, or rocking. Others provide more stability that support a student with appropriate positioning, armrests, lateral supports, or adjusted backrests based on the level of support needed.

When shopping for a chair for your child with autism, it’s important to ask yourself if you want it to provide more support or more opportunity for movement. From there, you’ll have to think about where or when your child will need to be seated (home or school, at a table/desk or on the floor).


Sensory Seating for Children with Autism

If your child has difficulty staying seated and is a wiggly, fidgety kiddo…


If you read our article on sensory seating, you learned that some children with sensory processing difficulties, attention deficit disorder, and autism (among others), have difficulty staying seated and benefit from active seating options to support attention and focus. Their sensory systems may be seeking more information in the form of wiggling, fidgeting, and repositioning themselves. Sensory seating or active seating can allow for movement in order to promote better engagement and redirect potentially disruptive fidgeting behaviors.


The key to selecting your child’s appropriate active seating option is to strike the right balance between having them pay attention to the task at hand and allowing for movement or fidgeting. For some kids, their brains are better able to focus when engaged in subtle movements so choose a “just-right” fit based on how much they need to move, what movement is safely accomplished with the seating option, and what enables them to engage while moving.


Here are some options that provide active seating components for tabletop tasks:



Here are some sensory seating options that would be good for use on a floor:



Supported Seating for Children with Autism

If your child has difficulty sitting upright or falls out of his chair…


If you’re reading this thinking that your child needs more support, rather than movement, there are options for supportive seating that would be appropriate to consider. A child who would benefit from more supported seating may have decreased core muscle tone, strength, or endurance. He may have difficulty paying attention because it is difficult to stay upright! When his brain is focusing so hard on staying upright and maintaining a posture that is difficult for him, it becomes harder to learn, attend, and interact. Supported seating can lower the postural demands on a child to promote better engagement and increase safety with positioning.


These seating options usually promote a 90/90/90 seated position, meaning that the child’s hips, knees, and ankles are all able to rest in 90° positions for maximum proximal stability. Proximal stability basically means your core/body is in a well supported, stable position so that your more distally controlled movements like fine motor, oral motor, and visual motor skills are able to be as refined as they need to. Some supported seating will also allow for lateral supports (or armrests), seat belts, trays, and/or a “pommel” that goes between the student’s legs to prevent them from sliding out of the seat.


While some more supportive seats are often used as part of ABA “therapy chairs,” it needs to be stated that pommels, lap belts/seat belts, and trays attached to the chair can be considered a restraint if the child is not able to freely get up from the chair. These additional supports should be recommended for postural recommendations, in consultation with qualified members of an educational team, and not intended as a way to restrain a child to stay seated. This should be part of a team discussion and well understood by all adults should a more restrictive chair be chosen for a child.


That being said, there are a number of options for moderately supportive chairs that could be right for your child’s age, height, and needs. Here are some supported seating options that would be appropriate for a table or desk (age/height depending):



Here are some more supportive seating options for floor sitting:



Rocking Chairs and Swing Chairs


For children who seek out vestibular sensory input with excessive rocking, look for other ways to incorporate that same input in a more appropriate ways. Is it possible to do seated work in a rocking chair? How about an indoor swing that positions your child in a seated position? For activities like reading, listening to music, or leisure activities, offer seating options that might provide more sensory input when possible.


If your child rocks in his chair, you may consider adding a rocking chair to allow for more safe movement, just be sure to install the anti-tip legs! From video game rockers, to more traditional rocking chairs, to gliders, and floor rockers, there are a number of options that could be helpful in meeting your child’s vestibular needs!



Tips and Takeaways


There is a lot to consider when choosing an alternative seating option for your child with autism. Sensory and postural needs are a primary consideration, as is the “when” and “why” for needing a special chair. Whether you choose an active sensory seat, moderately supportive seat, floor rocker, swing chair, or a combination of a few options, keep your child’s specific needs in mind and consult your OT or PT for their individualized recommendations!