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I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects in this series of 10 articles I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you. In this article, I will be exploring how to support the neurodiverse community through sensory scaping in early years settings. 

In my last article, I talked about how classroom and nursery environments have gone through something of a 'sensory 180', beginning as barren, boring environments and now potentially sometimes being so stimulating as to be overwhelming. In recognising that children (and adults) experience the sensory world in different ways, we recognise that there is no one right environment. But you may very well just have one room, so what can you do? You want it to be right for everyone, how can you achieve this? 

First up, in the title of this article I referred to our neurodiverse community, sometimes this is taken as meaning children and adults with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD and whilst autistics and people with ADHD, certainly are a part of the neurodiverse community, they are people with what would be considered ‘typical’ brains.

Neurodiverse refers to the diversity of ways the brain can be wired, in the same way, that biodiversity refers to the great array of plants and animals there are. Sometimes reflections of this kind are prompted by the presence of a particular child in a setting who just cannot cope with the sensory landscape as it is, and so it can feel like the changes are done for that child. Recognising that these adaptations benefit everyone can increase the motivation of staff implementing them. You can think of that child as the tip of the iceberg, they signal the needs of a great many more children who go unnoticed beneath the surface. And it is not just the children, you want your space to be somewhere the adults can feel at home at a sensory level within too. 

In this article, I am going to consider two approaches to doing this, the ‘broad-brush, best bet’ approach and ‘sensory scaping’.  

Broad-Brush, Best Bet 

If you want to go for a broad-brush, best bet approach to the sensory landscape in your space, my advice would be to design along natural themes, use natural tone colours like browns, beiges and greens - create natural textures: the roughness of bark and hessian, the softness of earth and grass, and deploy natural background tracks such as the lapping of waves against the sea shore, or the movement of grasses in the wind. Avoid the loud primary colours. Choose toys made of natural materials that will fit with the design. Keep displays to particular locations and avoid the urge to cover every inch of space. 

Instagram and social media, in general, will give you oodles of inspiration for such an approach, The best thing to Google if looking for inspiration along these lines, is the Danish concept of Hygge. If I had charge of an early years setting and a designer at my disposal, this is what I would charge them with creating. This would not be me imposing a preferred personal aesthetic, it would be me responding to what I know about the sensory world and deploying a broad-brush, best bet approach. 

Often when I am talking to people about the sensory responses of others, I am talking about being a detective, about recognising that not everyone’s sensory perceptions are the same as our own, and encouraging people to try and figure out what sensation is like through that other person’s eyes, ears, mouth, body etc. We are wired differently, we are unique…but… we also have things in common, we are the same type of animal, we come from a shared history, and whilst some aspects of our experience are exceptionally unique, there are things deep wired in us that come from that shared history. 

As a species, we are used to living in nature. Through our shared history, we have dwelt outside, beneath the sky, in the elements, sheltering in trees and caves. Nature has been our home and in nature, our senses will tell us we are at home. We have, in terms of our history as an animal, been living in these concrete boxes for the blink of an eye. I noticed it especially during the first lockdown of the pandemic in 2020 - when people were given an hour to leave their homes they went to nature, they were feeling anxious, rightly so, and they felt safer in nature. 

Creating an environment that resonates with natural experiences can support children in feeling safe at a sensory level, and children who feel safe can connect, engage, and focus. (Children on alert cannot do those things and will be flighty, reactive, and volatile). 

 

Sensory Scaping For A Neurodiverse Community

Sensory Scaping For The Neurodiverse Community 

Some children need more stimulation, feel disconnected and need a big jolt of jumping off a box to realise where their bodies are. Their vision craves stimulation, bright colours, and flashing spinning things, they are still learning to modulate their voices and benefit from things being loud and quiet, from crashing and "woo-wooing". Not every child benefits from the peace of a Hygge-style environment. 

If you are considering how best to provide for a diverse range of sensory needs in your setting and you have space to do so, you might think about sensory scaping different zones. Could you have one zone that was Hygge style as described above, could you keep all the bright loud stimulating stuff in another zone? And perhaps if you still had room, you could have another space that had stimulation for children’s subconscious senses of proprioception and stipulation – this space might have a hammock, or a chair swing that wraps around a child, it might have bungees that the children could pull and ping, it could have a swathe of stretchy cloth tied between two trees or two firm pillars that the children could press against. It could be resourced with body socks and massage brushes and rollers, vibrating pillows and weighted shoulder wraps or lap blankets.  

The added benefit of a zoned sensory space like this is it gives children the ability to not only meet their sensory needs, but to communicate them to you through their choice of where to spend time. I mentioned in a previous article that little children cannot always tell you what is bothering them at a sensory level. This is true if you are only able to listen to words, but if you listen to movements, if you listen by observing, by watching the children, if you listen to their actions, noticing where it is that they are still, where it is that their bodies appear more agitated, then you will find they communicate loud and clear and respond wholeheartedly to the adults who listen and understand. 

This is article five of this series. The first three articles were about how the sensory world can be used to support learning and mental health and how to go about utilising its potential. The previous article looked at how our environments can sometimes be too stimulating, and this one has considered how we can modulate the stimulation we offer. In my next article, I will explore the popular topic of multisensory rooms and look at whether you need one and how you can provide the benefits of one on a shoestring budget! Do feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfold. All the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk. 

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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