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Environment 

In articles 4-6 of this series, we looked at how the environment around a child can affect them at a sensory level. If you are supporting a child who processes sensory information differently, then you are going to want to pay particular attention to the sensory environment you offer that child. It is worth a re-read of those articles as you think about this. But to further extend what was said in them, you could consider whether this child might need a little bit of their own space. Something like a small tent, a stretchy fabric seat swing that cocoons a child, or even just a good old cardboard box to hide in (cardboard is an excellent absorber of sound so cardboard boxes can be great little pause places for children overwhelmed by the cacophony around them).

I am not suggesting segregating this child from their peers, we want them to be a part of things, but it is likely that with the best will in the world, you are not able to provide a sensory environment that works for everyone all the time; they may well be having to cope with certain aspects of your setting. Giving them a place where they can get away from it all for a moment or so and recharge their batteries is a way of respecting and supporting the work they do in being a part of the group.

Have you ever taken time out from a party to sit in a toilet cubicle and re-group? It wasn’t that you didn’t want to be at the party, it was just you needed that moment to gather yourself back together so that the whole of you could be there. By providing small bespoke sensory environments to children who need them you give them, the chance to gather themselves together and to be in your setting as their whole selves. 

Sensory Resources For Support

Some children with sensory differences need to fiddle with things, some bite on things, others rock to and fro, and some make loud noises or grind their teeth. Sometimes what they do doesn’t hurt them or harm others, in which case let them do it. But sometimes they’re biting on things that could be dangerous to them (or to others) or they’re shouting when you need the setting to be quiet. It is where there are these mismatches between how they are providing for their need and the world around them where intervening is necessary.

The more you understand about why they are doing these things the more able you will be to provide resources for them. I will give you some examples from my own experiences to to arouse your curiosity. A little boy who was constantly biting his clothing and the skin around his fingers found the sensation of biting to be calming He was right to do this; we have a hormone that is released when we bite and chew that calms us. it was intended in prehistoric times to keep us calm when food had been found so that we would eat our fill. His clothes and fingers were suffering as a result. We found him some jewellery and he happily switched to biting that. 

Another little boy was constantly biting his fingers and we tried jewellery, but it didn’t work. We realised that it wasn’t the calm of biting he was seeking, it was the pain of being bitten. We applied our curiosity to wondering why and recognised that pain is one way of becoming aware of your own body. We offered him the chance to play on a small trampette and noticed that when he was on this, he didn’t look to bite his fingers the way he did when he was doing other activities. Jumping and feeling your body rebound sends you strong messages through your proprioceptive and vestibular systems about where your body is in space. We went on to support this child with weighted shoulder wraps during storytime and offered him vibrating toys to hold whilst he engaged in free play activities. 

The two boys were biting but they were fulfilling different sensory needs through that biting, doing the detective work of being curious was critical to supporting them. 

I thought it might be helpful to your curiosity if I listed some common sensory resources I’ve offered children to support them in meeting different sensory needs:

Ear defenders – For when children are seeking comfort in response to being distressed by sound – I’ve seen children do this:

  • by making noises themselves (blocking out the distressing noise)
  • by hurting themselves (communicating their distress and locating their bodies)
  • by moving faster or jumping (finding their bodies – knowing where you are is reassuring and so counters being unnerved)
  • by putting their fingers in their ears and squealing (again blocking out the noise)

Weighted resources, or compression wear clothing – I’ve often improvised the latter out of stretchy material tied in loops that can be worn around the shoulders or looped around chair legs for feet to press against. These all provide information to children about where their bodies are in space, and knowing where you are in space can help you feel more secure. Children with variances in their proprioceptive and vestibular systems often require additional assistance in spatial orientation. This may become apparent through their seemingly atypical movements or a general sense of being a bit disoriented or vague.

Wands (made of pencils) with colourful or sparkly fronds taped to the top – These have delighted many children with visual processing differences. I noticed that in the examples I’ve given above, I began with distressed children, here I begin with joyful children, and in noticing the joy they get from visual stimulation, simply offer them more. Not everything about sensory differences has to be sad and stressful. Autistic people see the world in high definition, often people with visual processing differences can experience delight through their sensing of visual stimuli. These twiddle wands are a wonderful way of creating joy and celebrating sensory differences. 

In my next two articles, I’m going to explore how sensory differences can affect the way children eat. I imagine by now that the families of the children in your settings with sensory differences have come to know and rely on you as they would a friend. One of the most frightening ways sensory differences can affect a child is through their eating, so having a little insight into this will continue to help you to provide for those children and support their families. As you wait for those articles to come out please feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl, all the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk 

Explore more in this series here:

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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