‘Sensory’ stuffed animals helping local children with autism

A counseling group in Pensacola has a wish this Christmas. They hope to give every child with autism a different type of stuffed animal that helps with their therapy. They are called “sensory” stuffed animals.

Zeke Merchant has sensory issues and is on the autism spectrum. He brings his new best friend, a stuffed animal puppy, with him everywhere. You can’t see it, but his puppy has weights inside so when Zeke holds him, the pressure calms him down.

His mom Kirsten said, “I tell him go get his puppy, go chill out, and helps him calm down and brings him back down to being level and happy.”

The director of counseling at the Faith and Hope Counseling Center, Sharon Thompson, said there is a science behind sensory stuffed animals.

“That pressure feels calming for them. Without that, they seek that pressure in other ways. They bump into things, they hug people really tight, and with this, they can get their sense of calm in ways that are more socially appropriate.”

The counselors realized there was a need for this, but buying one can be pretty expensive. They cost around $70, so they started making them for the children.

Kelly Ryals is the chief sensory stuffed animal maker. She doesn’t get paid to do it, her goal is every child that needs one can have one.

She said, “The animal has to be opened. Depending on the weight, we have to position it pretty much in the center of the animal. We figure the child will sit with it in their lap or against their chest.”

They are customized by weight and size for the child’s needs. Each animal comes with a story.

Charlotte is a stuffed animal rabbit.

“Charlotte has her birth certificate, she was born in Charlottesville and weighs four pounds. Her birth certificate says ‘I weigh four lbs. I like to be carried around when you are upset. If you need a friend like me, take me home,'” said Ryals.

It takes time to make one.

“It takes about five hours to do one animal. These beads we use need to be cleaned and sanitized. We need to restuff them if necessary and sew up any holes,” said Ryals.

The counselors have been buying the stuffed animals themselves, but now they are asking the community to drop off any large, slightly used or new stuffed animals, so they can make more for children that need them.

“It’s simply one of the tools we like families to have,” said Ryals.

Zeke has only had his puppy for about a week and his mom has already seen a major difference.

“It’s been a big help anytime he gets upset or overwhelmed,” she said.

If you would like to donate a stuffed animal or if you are interested in getting your child one, you can call (850) 471-3430 or visit their Facebook page here.

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