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A Sensory Spectacular

“He’ll eat when he’s hungry”

“He’ll get used to messy play if we keep encouraging him”

“She can’t play with the water unless she puts on an apron”

I have heard all of these phrases and comments in the years I have been in the sector and some more recently than others. They are amongst comments that infer practitioners are assuming that a child is just ‘going through a phase’ or just ‘being awkward’. But what if you had a real fear of spiders and small spaces and were asked to go through a dark tunnel that was full of the 8-legged creatures, you wouldn’t do it but more importantly, you couldn’t do it. This is the same response you will find from a child with sensory challenges. They are not reacting to a situation, just because. They are responding in the only way they are able.

As adults we might not like a certain woolly jumper, rollercoasters, the smell of petrol or feel of cotton wool. However, we are able to carry on with our daily life and are able to use our own self-regulation strategies to deal with these things if we were to come into contact with them. As children with SPD get older, they may be able to negotiate their own strategies, standing back and observing, protecting themselves from the scary and unpredictability of sensory input. However, children in their early years are less likely to be able to do this and their responses can be perceived as challenging behaviours that are ‘naughty’ or a choice. We need to have more awareness and make sure that we listen and respond to what the children are communicating to us.

Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where the brain struggles to process the information it receives through sensory stimuli. There is an indication that 15-35% of the population may have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and that 96-98% of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder have some level of SPD. This condition isn’t just associated with the five main senses but also the additional vestibular system (body balance and movement), proprioceptive sense (body positioning and body awareness) and interoceptive sense (the messages sent from your internal organs to your brain) senses.

There are so many situations that we ask and expect children to be a part of. But many of these can be too overwhelming for them, and they are unable to take part, or take a while to engage due to the high level of anxiety they are dealing with. The environment itself can be a trigger for children with SPD. Walking into the play space can cause a tremendous fear that impacts on their sense of emotional safety and security and therefore their ability to learn and access the full offer within the early years setting.

A child with SPD who enters a room that has walls full of bright displays, objects hanging from the ceiling, high noise levels, busy with children and adults can just be too much. Once a child with sensory challenges has been identified, could small changes be made to support them? The room could be made calmer with more use of neutral tones. There could be covered, enclosed spaces for the child to go to prior to joining in, giving them time to adjust to the space, time aside with their key carer at the start of each day to ease the transition in the room. Do they avoid messy play? Ask yourself what may be the reasons behind this? Could you use provide something other than a hard, wet scratchy apron for them to put on for messy play? Could you adapt your activities so that they can use messy materials, but inside zip lock bags, or under cling film? Have you identified smells that can trigger concerns for them? Consider what you use in the playdough, or even the shampoo the key carer uses.

My son has SPD and autistic spectrum disorder and in the support I provide early years settings and in my training delivery, I provide opportunities to expand their knowledge and understanding on SPD and to ask that they please work in complete partnership with parents. It is an invisible condition that needs tolerance, empathy and support. Our children are struggling daily with overwhelming anxieties from unpredictable stimuli and just small adaptions and providing a truly inclusive environment for all, can make huge differences.

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