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Categorised in Health & Wellbeing

Following my post on supporting children with sensory processing disorders (such as ADHD, autism, and dyspraxia) whilst home-schooling, I thought it might be helpful to say more about how you can introduce the types of sensory strategies good SENCOs use in your home environment.

As most carers of children with sensory processing disorders are familiar with the term ‘sensory diet’, I’ll start there. For those that aren’t, typically, a sensory diet is a list of sensory strategies to do with the person you care for throughout their day.

If you have seen a sensory diet, you may have used it with varying degrees of success. Or, you may have started with good intentions, but forgotten about the diet by lunch time. Don’t worry, this is actually pretty typical! It can be done though.

Let’s start with some definitions of the terms occupational therapists use when prescribing sensory strategies …

Arousal: this refers to the level of alertness in the body. It ranges from low (or asleep) to high (or highly stressed).

Optimal arousal: this is the perfect level of arousal to match the environment and activity. Sometimes it’s called ‘just right arousal.’ At night time, optimal arousal would be low enough to facilitate sleep. During lessons, optimal arousal is when a student can focus and pay attention. In the playground, it’s normal for optimal arousal to be a bit higher as there’s more movement and usually excitement.

Regulation: this refers to the ability a person has to organise their level of arousal to match the environment and the activity. Essentially, it’s the ability to adjust to an optimal level of arousal for the situation. Throughout the day the brain is constantly doing things to increase and decrease arousal levels in an effort to regulate. Some children (and adults) have more difficulty regulating than others.

Sensory strategy: this refers to a strategy which uses one of the seven senses (yes, there are seven senses, as described in my blog What is Sensory Processing Disorder?) to help with regulation. Examples of sensory strategies for children include, fidget toys, ear defenders, wobble cushions and movement breaks.

Let’s look at the goal of sensory strategies …

The goal of sensory strategies is to support regulation and optimal arousal and to prevent sensory overload. This means that the strategy will be different at different times and for different individuals. Sometimes, the person you care for might need a strategy to increase their arousal, and at others they will need one to decrease it.

As a carer of someone with a sensory processing disorder, you will already be well aware of the many challenges people with such difficulties face. Even so, you might find this video useful for sharing with those who don’t get it!

Often sensory diets are recommended as a way to organise an individual’s sensory strategies through their day. So, a sensory diet will have activities to complete at specific times, e.g: ‘Movement break at 10am’. The problem with such prescriptive sensory diets though, is that they don’t facilitate real world flexibility.

If the individual you care for is settled, organised and paying attention to a lesson whilst you are home-schooling at 10am, they may not need their movement break. However, if your morning got off to a bad start, and they’ve been sitting watching TV whilst you play catch up with your other caring tasks for half an, they might need to move, even if it’s not on their schedule.

In addition, when sensory strategies are an extra thing to do, often they are forgotten. There are even more things to fit into the day now we’re in lockdown, that remembering movement breaks for your child can become a challenge. Also, early stages of overload may be missed, you may just not notice that they are in overload until their behaviour has become disruptive. And it is very normal for individuals with a SPD to internalise their behaviours, which means it’s, sadly, very easy to overlook.

Four ways to embed sensory strategies …

There are four way to increase success with your use of sensory strategies.

  1. Consider how to set up the environment to best support the child’s needs.
  2. Embed sensory strategies into the daily routine.
  3. Have a few strategies you know can help at times of immediate need.
  4. Teach the child how to self-regulate.

How to set up the environment to best support your child’s needs …

It is so much easier to access sensory strategies when the environment is set up correctly. If your child’s ear defenders are at the back of the cupboard, it’s unlikely they will be used regularly. A plan that requires a lot of space is not realistic if you live in a flat. A plan that suggests going to the park every day will be much harder if the park isn’t on the way home or across the road, or if you can’t get to it during lockdown because you are shielding.

Think about the strategies your child needs and how you can make these accessible in your own environment. Figure out how you can make the environment work with you. You may also want to consider a small bag of things that you can take with you when you go out of the house.