Bubble tubes and Autism

How to use this vital tool with pupils with difficult behaviour.


Since the dawn of multi-sensory rooms, light rooms or whatever you may happen to call your special place, one piece of equipment has always featured. Not front and centre but always stuck in the corner and nearly always backed by mirrors. The good old bubble tube, small ones, tall ones, interactive tubes, they all come in many shapes and sizes but in the end they are all the same. Air bubbling up through a tube of water and for such a simple concept they are incredibly popular and this popularity alone makes them a great tool for working with individuals with challenging behaviour. Why? And how?

For many individuals who display behaviour that we may consider challenging they have a significant difficulty with sensory processing. They struggle to tune out unnecessary sensory input and become overwhelmed, they need to practice their skill of sensory regulation and so we begin with, “Just Looking”. The bubble tube with its bright light source, the sound of the bubbles, the feel of the vibration or smooth outer surface becomes our great focal point. If the individual, you are working with wants to sit and stare at the bubble tube don’t be afraid to let them. In fact, let’s make it an individual target. Ryan will focus on the bubble tube for X seconds/minutes without prompting.  We are looking for the individual to get lost in their interest for the bubble tube. Don’t worry about obsession or not communicating. We want them to have a period of time where they are not being overwhelmed by a whole range of sensations. We want to teach them to focus on one thing and to not be distracted and overwhelmed by other sensory stimuli. One word of caution, for this to succeed the bubble tube needs to be the sole focus and yet nearly every bubble tube is backed by mirrors. For these sessions cover the mirrors. Hook and loop tape on black curtain liner will provide a very effective way of removing this unwanted stimulus. Don’t remove the mirrors, other individuals love the effect and we also in other circumstances need them to monitor the responses of individuals accessing the tube.

The fact that so many of the individuals that we work with enjoy the bubble tube so much means it can play a great supportive role in developing personal interaction. At the simplest level, this may be someone else sharing space with the individual, just being able to sit alongside someone whose behaviour challenges can often be a significant step forward. Good positive interaction is the key to developing a good working relationship with those we are supporting and it is only through positive approaches that we can aid their own personal management of their challenging behaviour and how they can develop their interactive skills through joint sensory work sensory work.

Adding a switch into the system, which most recent bubble tubes allow, increases the opportunities for developing communication skills. Switch off the bubble tube and look for any sign from the individual that they have recognised the change. Leaning closer to the tube, looking at you, looking at the switch – any indication, then immediately switch the tube back on. This behaviour can then be shaped up to become purposeful communication.

The tactile impact of the bubble tube can also be utilised with individuals simply holding or hugging the bubble tube. Many children seek to crawl behind the tube, hug it or hold it tight. If you are familiar with the strategies involving deep pressure this then is the individual seeking deep pressure on their own terms, without other people’s involvement. In this way it can be a great tool if you are aware that a bad day lies ahead for the individual. Say, because their transport was delayed or someone they really don’t like is going to be in their vicinity for most of the day. Start their day off with some deep pressure work, such as letting them have time hugging the tube. There is an awful lot more to this than just hugging a tube, but I haven’t got space here and now to cover it!

This is just a dip into using the bubble tube to help out individuals with autism, but do try out some of the ideas and let us know how you get on!

Clive Smith