Our brains are built to regulate responses to our exposure to sensory stimuli, the things we touch, smell, see, hear and taste. The link between our brains and our behaviours is known as “sensory integration”. This for most is a norm in their everyday lives, however for people with a developmental disorder, such as autism, the way in which these experiences are processed can cause some distress or discomfort.
In some circumstances, a persons' brain may overreact to sensory stimuli, in other cases the brain may not react enough. Sensory experiences are not bound to the five senses, they can create much deeper cognitive responses, these are the tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular sensory systems.
What Can I Do As A Parent Grandparent or Teacher?
Being aware of your child’s/student's needs is key to helping them. Becoming as knowledgeable as you can about the developmental disorder is fundamental to helping ease any possible distress your child may have. Part of being knowledgeable about your child’s adjustments is having the right tools for your child this can be the difference between struggling and coping.
Make other people aware of a child’s disability, this is not something you should hide, ignore or be ashamed of. There is often a stigma behind disabilities, and often people are ashamed to talk about them. We live in a time where people are generally accepting of other differences. Schools do a great job accommodating children with disabilities, giving extra help, tools, resources and even extra time on things such as exams to help give the same opportunity. Supermarkets often do sensory-friendly shopping, in which noise is reduced, lights are dimmed, and it gives ease of shopping for people who may usually find shopping discomforting. Stores have whole sections of sensory products that help individuals with developmental disorders regulate the brains' negative reactions to external stimuli helping feel more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation or setting.
Everyone deals with their disorder in a different way, their OWN way. For some, it can be very challenging, for other people, it may mean they have to make some small changes to how things are “normally” done. Having knowledge and ownership of the right tools can often help reduce a challenge to a small change. Sensory tools offer numerous benefits such as;
Having a negative reaction to experiences can cause distress for a person with a disability. When stressed, a calming environment, where a child can be alone and take control of their emotions can be beneficial. Using soothing items such as a weighted blankets or dark den accessories where the lights can be dimmed and a child can relax can help them take back control of their emotions and relax.
It is important that children with special needs have their own space to feel comfortable, but it is also important that children develop social skills in a setting that is comfortable for them. Encouraging children with a developmental disorder to play with others in a space that the child feels comfortable is the first step. As the child becomes more comfortable with a setting progressively encourage play in a more unfamiliar setting. Toys and games such as; board games or collaborative games will help with these social skills. Social development is not just about playing or interacting with other people, but also reading about how others behave, think and display their emotions through books, images or play.
Children with ADHD, Autism and other developmental disorders can often be more active or find it more difficult to focus. Fidget toys, specially designed furniture or vibrating cushions are a great way to help children retain focus on a task or during class.
Children can often have issues with fine and gross motor skill development. So giving the opportunity and space to practice these skills can be beneficial for development. For gross motor skill development, toys that offer children the ability to balance, throw, climb or build will help develop these skills. For fine motor skill development, products that help with skills such as the pincer grip, walking, pushing and squeezing will help the child not only develop, but can also make everyday tasks easier to complete.
Cognitive development is the way in which a child perceives, thinks, and gains an understanding of the world through genetic and learned factors. Cognitive development has four stages as theorised by Jean Piaget: sensorimotor (0-2), preoperational (2-7), concrete (7-11) & formal (11-15). Games and learning materials that allow children to explore and understand their actions on the impact of the world around them are best for cognitive development.
When you create a sensory experience for your child, it allows them to explore through their five senses, which is key for development. Having this space where they can explore their senses, especially in their own home will provide a calm, stress-free environment. Lights, fidgets, specialised furniture and building materials are great tools to help with sensory development. Exposing your children to a place where they can discover will help develop their complex motor and balance skills as well as develop their muscle functions.
It is key to understand your child’s developmental disorder, as everyone deals with it differently. While getting the right toys and tools to help with a child’s needs, learning how to use them and the understanding of why to use them through the Playful Learning Approach is equally as important.