Developmental Disabilities and Switches to Activate Battery-Operated Devices

Many children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are more willing to engage in activities that provide a reinforcement. For example, a switch that activates an electrical or battery-operated device may provide the reward  that makes the person want to press the switch again... and again. "Sensory reinforcers" that stimulate the senses such as music, a fan or vibration may be particularly motivating to activate.

This post focuses on push panel battery-operated devices that are inexpensive, safe and easy to purchase or make. Another benefit to battery-operated devices is that one does not need to be near an electrical outlet to use them.

The following is an excerpt from my book The Recycling Occupational Therapist.

Why Use Switches?

Switches promote basic hand skills such as reaching, pressing, squeezing or using hands together. The young lady shown in the photo above typically brings the shaker or her hand to her mouth. However, when provided a push panel switch that activates a fan, she uses her hands in a purposeful manner. She loves the breeze and the control to turn it on and off at will. She is empowered! The homemade panel switch shown in the feature photo provides the same  therapeutic benefits.

Materials to make Push-Panel Switches

  • Leather shears or strong scissors for cutting plastic and aluminim.
  • Plastic panels from baby-wipe containers or other plastic sources
  • Aluminun baking dishes or pie plates
  • Electrical wire
  • Electrical tape
  • 1/8- inch phone-jack plugs (male)
  • wire strippers or scissors
  • Masking tape
  • Contact paper (to decorate)
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder
  • Foam strips


Although you may simply tape the electrical wire connections, I recommend that you solder them to make the equipment last longer. Because cut metal is very sharp, tape all edges- even if they will not be exposed. Make sure that wires are well-covered with electrical tape because if two exposed wires touch the device will stay on even when the switch is not being activated. Loose connections or when not enough wire touches metal may also cause trouble. For consistency, use male plugs on all switches and female plugs on all reinforcers (i.e. fan) Twist all wire ends to prevent the wire strands from separating. Make sure that all toys have the on/off switch set to ON when in use. A battery interrupter may be used to activate any battery-operated device.

Here are videos that demonstrate how to 1)strip 2)solder (or tin) wires and 3) make a battery interrupter and 4) convert a battery-operated toy to use a switch:

Construction Directions

  1. Cut two plastic panel pieces. Cut two rectangular pieces of aluminum that are smaller than the plastic pieces.
    Tape each piece of metal to one side of each panel.
  2. Cut four strips of foam. Tape two strips to the two parallel borders of Panel A and Panel B (see illustration).
  3. Cut a 20-inch length of electrical wire. Strip one end 1/4-inch, and separate the two strands of wire. Twist the ends. Unscrew the casing on the 1/8-inch male plug. Slip the wire through the casing. Attach each wire strand through holes in the plug. Solder, cover with electrical tape, and screw the casing back on. This male plug can connect to any reinforcer with a 1/8-inch female plug. Some devices have a female plug built in (as shown in the illustration). If not, a battery interrupter may be purchased or made.
    A variety of mechanical devices (such as fans, vibrating tubes, and toys) that have built-in female plugs are sold through special education and therapy catalogs. They can be quite expensive!
  4. Strip about 2 inches from the other end of the electrical wire, and tape each strand across each panel.
  5. Flip panel B onto panel A. The result is a "sandwich" with the two metal sides facing each other. When the metal touches metal, the switch will activate a device. The foam separates the metal so that it is necessary to push down or add weight to create the contact.
  6. Tape the panels together on the four borders.

The following video demonstrates how a push-panel switch may be activated by a preferred object as well as the hand.


  1. The thicker the foam, the more force or weight is required to activate the switch. To make the switch activate more easily use less foam.
  2. The larger the switch, the less motor control needed to push it down.
  3. Angle the switch by taping a piece of foam under the panel. This will make the switch easier to see and push.
  4. Make sure there is a good figure-ground contrast between the switch and the table surface. Cover the panel with bright pictures, patterns, colors, or interesting textured materials.
  5. Place the switch snugly inside a box as shown above. Cut a hole in one bottom corner for the wire to exit. Cover the the top of the box and cut openings to insert objects or use as a shape sorter. The weight of the objects will activate the switch.
  6. Higher -functioning clients may practice prevocational skills by assembling nuts and bolts before dropping them into the container.
  7. Place the push-panel switch under a pegboard, ink stamper or other tabletop activity. The switch will be activated when pressure is applied.
  8. Attach a thin cord to the push panel. Have the client string large, heavy washers onto the cord. Eventually the weight will activate the switch.

Place the switch next to a ring stack or dowel attached to a stand. The weight of rings will activate the switch. You may need to hide the switch and dowel stand inside a box so that the client cannot simply push down on the switch without performing the stacking task.

Creating a Bilateral Grasping Switch

The following switch construction is based on the same principle as the push-panel switch. The wires are attached to metal. When the metal pieces touch, the circuit is completed and the reinforcer is activated. By attaching the metal pieces to handles, the client must grasp one in each hand and bring the hands together in midline so that the metal sides touch. Bringing the hands together in midline is an important prerequisite to bilateral hand skills.  This is also a great way to offer an easy to grasp, enlarged, handle to use during a functional activity.


Prepare two handles cut from detergent bottles. Prepare wires, plugs, and metal pieces as you would for the push-panel switch. Use duct tape to securely attach each metal piece (with wires taped inside) over the flaps. Cover all exposed openings with contact paper or decorate duct tape. The reinforcer is activated when the two handles are clapped together with metal touching metal. The individual may enjoy grasping the handles and pressing them down on a cookie sheet to activate the switch. This variation may be easier to perform but still works on similar skills.

The following video demonstrates a commercial push panel switch that activated the pretty aquarium and the large container which held a vibrating massager. Clients felt the container vibrate when engaged in the task of inserting bean bags. This set up was extremely motivating!

Commercial Resources:

The following materials sold on Amazon may be purchased to construct the push panel switch. I earn a small fee when you shop through these links. The battery interrupter may be inserted between batteries of any device so that the switch can be plugged into it.



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