sensory pit-stops: invitations to find calm

We are counting down now to beginning a new term – new teachers, new classes, and for two of mine new schools. There is definitely a need for me to be providing and enabling as many calming sensory activities as possible – yesterday I just couldn’t keep up!

Our emotions and physical responses to them are so complex I wonder how any of us actually learn to regulate ourselves. For many of us no doubt it comes easier than for others. Certainly if our understanding and recognition of different emotions is still a work in progress then instinctive self regulation is going to be almost impossible. It has to be learnt. So the more varied and frequent opportunities to learn to become calm and collected when feeling huge emotions the better.

These are some of my favourite activities to leave out dotted around the house that can become calming sensory pit-stops:

  • cornflour gloop – best in a room with a wipeable floor: cornflour and just enough water to make a gloopy paste in a shallow bowl or tub. This is great, it gives a sensation of resistance when poked and pushed and also soft fluidity when dangled or allowed to ooze back into itself. To dispose of it afterwards I leave it to dry out a little and then put it in the bin. Bits on the floor or table leave to dry then brush and scoop into the bin. (It blocks drains if washed down the sink)
  • playdough – We make our own, and then for extra sensory input can give it a scent like lavender, citrus, peppermint etc. The best bit of making your own is that it needs to be kneaded like bread dough as it cools down and the warmth with the kneading is amazing… just check it’s not still very hot before you hand it over to the kids. (Our recipe came from a good friend: 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 tbsp oil, 2 tsp cream of tartar, 1 cup of water with food colouring in if desired… beat it together as it heats up in a saucepan.)
  • painting- not perhaps something I would leave out casually all the time but this can be really absorbing; big plain paper, brushes, sponges, fingers etc, paint & imagination.

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  • wobble board – we have a circular board with a curved underneath that was being sold as a toning piece of equipment for keep fit, but we use it simply for fun balancing. When movement and concentration come together it can prove very calming. And this can simply be left out in a place with some space to be used in-between things, or on the way from one part of the house to another.
  • Animals – in our house one of the key strategies for self-regulation is to spend time with animals. Before we had the kittens days like these would be better if the guinea pigs came in and were easily available for cuddles. Now of course the kittens are always to be found somewhere in the house, and thankfully they crave attention and fuss. The only problem is when the attention given to one of them becomes a stress trigger for a sibling- either because they are not ‘doing it right’, or the kitten was found in someone else’s space, or its not considered to be ‘their turn’… but despite those (very frequent) moments I still think being in physical contact with animals brings such a lot of calm and reassurance.
  • blankets – and hot water bottles which add weight and warmth. Always on the sofa and beds ready to snuggle up in, hide under or tuck in tight around you.
  • water – another I cannot simply leave out, but there are so many opportunities during the day whether it’s to encourage lingering over hand washing, helping with some washing up, or allowing some pouring play between jugs tubs and cups. And there’s always the bath & shower on a day without time pressure which for our youngest is probably one of the best ways to really ground her when very anxious. Yesterday we resorted to a bath in the afternoon – and I got time to clean the bathroom at the same time!
  • a familiar activity – whether it’s a film that’s been seen a hundred times, reading a book that is known word for word, or a puzzle that’s a favourite, or a sorting activity with buttons or marbles etc that always gets done in the same way, a familiar activity can be very soothing.
  • music – a tricky one to balance everyone’s different needs at any given moment but brilliant nonetheless. As I write A is playing the piano which he gets completely absorbed in. B likes to listen to music on headphones which shuts all other hustle & bustle out. T loves to move and sing, and tends to want music loud when she wants it. Dance mats, dance games on the Wii, and listening to songs over and over again seem to really help T… but for the sake of everyone else we try to manage how long each time! Another absorbing and regulating music & movement activity is hand clapping rhymes and other nursery rhymes. T still asks for ‘this is the way the lady rides’ (a bouncing on a knee rhyme), and loves ‘a sailor went to sea, sea, sea’ etc.
  • hugs! – almost always on their terms of course, but being available for regular deep squeezing hugs is essential – and so easy, no prep required!

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  • marble bowl – simply marbles in a shallow wooden bowl. They can be swirled, spun, sifted through fingers and listened to as they spin gradually getting slower and slower.
  • mini sensory bin – again a simple bowl or tray, with rice, pasta, cous cous or sand in that is simply available to arrange things in (small world play figures or stones, shells, beads etc) and feel.
  • balloons – not for everyone I know, but the process of blowing up a balloon slows breathing down, and makes us take deep breaths in. And they are really fun when you don’t tie them but fill them and let them go over and over. And for the daring moments when the thought of the clearing up doesn’t phase you, balloons with some water in that can be held (it has a weight to it) and that move about in your hand are fascinating too.
  • dens – safe, inviting spaces to retreat into and block out the hustle and bustle. Soft glow light, flumpy cushions, paper & pens to doodle with and some cuddly toys.
  • tearing and cutting – leaving out an old newspaper or magazine with scissors if that’s appropriate. Prepare for easy to clear up mess, but T can be absorbed in cutting, tearing and scrunching paper for some time and this can be a good distraction from the times when anxiety begins to show itself as restless frustration.

 

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is it a paddy, is it a tantrum, no it’s super-meltdown: things I need you to know about meltdowns

The thing about sensory processing differences is that they are there all the time, sensory cravings alongside sensory defensiveness in a world full of light, noise, movement and touch means it can be surprisingly easy to get overwhelmed. The thing about autsitic masking (think swan with crazy fast, unseen feet working so hard to camouflage and do the right thing even when it feels like you are an alien in a world where the social expectations and rules are always just out of reach) is that it takes so much energy, so much focus to survive or overcome worry after worry just to make it through the day. So it doesn’t need much of a niggle, misunderstanding, or unexpected moment to be knocked off balance and all the bottled up worries and stress to burst out. Meltdowns happen. They are inconvenient, stressful, messy, noisy, attract unwanted attention, are painful and exhausting – for all of us, public or not.

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With a tantrum or angry outburst there are words, frustration and a battle for control. As a mum I know to reach for clear boundaries, definite options to move forward and get ready in the back of my mind for a suitable consequence if calm is not restored (for B when she was younger the consequence that worked best in these situations was her doll being put out of reach for the rest of the day… these days it’s much more likely to be screen time that gets affected if one of them simply refuses to stop and calm down.)

But a meltdown is entirely different. For us meltdowns are non-verbal, mute – there is sometimes shouting and screaming but there is no verbal communication. And there won’t be until a long time after the meltdown subsides and things are becoming regulated again. Meltdowns are not a choice, not consciously attention seeking – or a tool being used in a battle for control. A meltdown is out of control for the one experiencing it. As a mum I know this is not the time for negotiation, talking it out, or reaching for clear boundaries. My job is to keep things safe, and be there.

In a meltdown what I see when I stop and look into my child’s eyes is not frustration and willful battling but fear and the kind of rage that fear can be. It’s a panic attack. Their whole body is involved, flooded with adrenaline for fight or flight. The heart is pounding, their arms and legs lashing out in defensive attack. Things can be thrown as if in self defense, they can hide tight in an impenetrable ball, they can run as if their life depends on it. It is as if everything – every sound, touch, thought, feeling is coming at them. They are overwhelmed. They cannot find the ground. It is terrifying, exhausting. As a mum I know this is not the time for discipline, or consequences. My job is only to stay close, keeping them safe.

The aftermath of a meltdown takes a long time to go through. Rest has to happen, some withdrawal from demands. There is a need to feel secure and grounded again, either through a tight cuddle (T needs this often) or a familiar safe space and activity (usually a repetitive one). There will be no words for a long time. Often there is little to no recollection of the details of the meltdown at all, just sadness and regret at the thought that they might have hurt us. As a mum all I want to do now is give reassurance and be an undemanding loving, accepting presence.

It is often difficult to pinpoint the triggers of the meltdown. With a tantrum it is often much clearer what the whole thing is about. With a meltdown this isn’t always the case. With hindsight Andrew & I can work out some common contributing factors and we work to minimize these. We also see warning signs sometimes and if we can we can steer T or B towards a quiet space, or a calm activity which may go some way to prevent a meltdown. But this isn’t always achievable or possible. Sometimes we have chatted with our girls about what might have triggered the fear response, but this is rare. Often we find even approaching the subject of triggers can bring back the overwhelming feelings and anxiety visibly increases. Instead we talk together in calm moments about emotions, and physical reactions to emotions learning and exploring vocabulary so that understanding grows in the hope that emotions themselves can be ‘sat with’ more easily, and be less frightening in and of themselves. Hoping also that understanding and vocabulary can help everyday emotional regulation which in itself will build some resilience – and help me to understand my girls better so I can support them better.

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I am in awe of my girls. Having had bouts of panic attacks I know they are overwhelming, scary and exhausting. Facing them and enduring them takes courage. Getting through the day knowing that it could happen takes courage. And my girls don’t just ‘get through’ most days, they are adventurers and explorers who are interested in life, who face new challenges all the time. Meltdowns are not at all easy. They are not tantrums. They need love and support.

 

 

sunny sensory

Sunny weather is here… it has been incredibly hot in the last few days. So I’ve been reminding myself of all the sensory rich go-to activities we enjoy outside – and have been looking for inspiration for new ones!

Get creative!

  • water painting the patio (& walls, stones, benches, windows…anything that stays still long enough!) Just a plastic container for water & a range of different sized brushes or sponges. We also enjoy dipping biscuit cutters into the water and ‘printing’ their shapes, or of course getting hands and feet wet enough to print with them. Pictures dry up quite quickly so we never seem to run out of space. Though worth having a camera at the ready to capture pictures they don’t want to lose…

 

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T’s wonderful water painting of a bicycle

  • sand pit play is always a winner. Great for digging, mixing, building and shaping. Great for storytelling type play with action figures or dolls or toy animals. It’s also a great place to remember Bible stories together in that wind down part of the day.

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  • Painting & decorating! Painting outside can go big. Paint onto card, or large paper, or an old sheet. Get a great big box and cut a door into it, then paint away – add windows with views, pictures on the walls, brick work… wherever your imagination takes you. When it is dry bring out dressing up clothes & a picnic and enjoy your new playhouse…
  • Texture treasure hunts don’t need any planning at all! A piece of paper each, a box of wax crayons, and ready steady GO! See how many different textures or patterns you can take a rubbing of as you fill the paper up like a patchwork. If it needs to be a competition a prize for the most, or a prize for the most unusual textures, or the best patchwork design…

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Get wet!

  • dolls laundry. A big bowl of warm soapy water – the more bubbles the better – and a pile of dolls clothes; a clothes airer and pegs. I always make sure there’s a towel to hand for all the moments when it gets too much and hands or faces need to be dried before starting again. We use a toy shopping basket as a washing basket – it looks a little like mine, and I have a small peg basket with a handle which is great to play with. And of course my pegs are all sorts of colours so there’s fun to be had choosing pairs to go with the clothes, or deciding which side of the airer has to have which colour.

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  • Aquaplay. We were given a playset a number of years ago now, which clips together to create canal systems – each time can be a different configuration. It has straight and curvy pieces, locks, gates, boats, and water pumps. Once you have clipped it all how you want it you fill the system with water and can move the boats around, bring cargo from one side to the other, take action figures on boating holidays etc. It is wonderfully absorbing, has a rhythm and order to the way you have to move the water through the locks to get your boats round. Great play value. (Just had a quick look, and it’s still available to buy)

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  • paddling and pools are brilliant, especially when in the shade so you don’t have to worry too much about sun cream (the nature of kids with sensory cravings is that they often have strong sensory defensiveness too – and for us sun cream is one of those). Again, have towels at the ready, the end of this kind of play often comes abruptly & urgently in my experience. Balls, dolls, pouring, mixing, splashing, floating/sinking objects – and so many more ways to play. Put a paddling pool on a slight slope and you have water that meets land – a barbie beach, an animal watering hole…

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  • Ice cube arctic. Another paddling pool idea, but could also work in a sensory bin or tray. We collect flowers, stones, pebbles, feathers, cut up bits of drinking straws, glitter, small toy animals etc and put them into a variety of plastic containers – all sorts of sizes and shapes. Pour water in and pop in the freezer. When ready (I have put them in to freeze during the morning and got them out after school but really they last longer if left in to freeze right through.) get them all out into the paddling pool or tray along with other toy animals.

Get Trampolining!

  • Wet Trampoline – This gets slippery so careful supervision called for! All you need are full watering cans, and gentle bouncing – or water balloons plus bouncing – or to get the Trampoline wet with the hose before bouncing!
  • Ball pit Trampoline – simple, put ball pit balls (or a mix of different balls but making sure none are too hard or heavy) onto the Trampoline. These are amazing fun to bounce with, and also become (in our house anyway) all sorts of games – colour sorting, lining up, in or out, characters in an imaginary role play game (ie balls in our house all have names and are often at school when on the Trampoline, being moved to & from the shed in a school bus (push along dumper truck), facing time out if naughty, moving around to different lessons, taking turns to be bounced with etc).

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Get making!

  • Mud pies and potions – This activity needs very little resourcing or encouragement. Though I do steer to particular areas of the garden to find mud and stones etc, so my flower beds aren’t all dug up by the end. Similarly rules about which flowers to pick have to be agreed. I am always careful to be very near by just to make sure there is no eating or drinking of the pies and potions either… can never be sure. I am keen to create a mud kitchen over the summer this year, so am enjoying looking at other’s ideas – pinterest is an amazing place – and making plans.
  • Dens – made out of washing lines with big sheets, or clothes airers and blankets, or big cardboard boxes, or play tents. String, pegs, safety pins and stones to weight things down can all be useful.
  • holes – making a hole with a spade or a spoon might sound incredibly dull but believe me it’s absorbing, hard work, and full of interesting treasures – are you digging like an archaeologist looking for artifacts, a pirate looking for treasure or are you a bug hunter? It’s useful to mark out a small patch of the garden where you can live with this activity happening, or perhaps have a large plant pot filled with soil just for this. You might even want to bury some treasure for the digger to find! At the moment we seem to be finding a lot of broken pieces of kitchen or bathroom tiles – each with colour and pattern. They are then washed lovingly with a paintbrush and find their way to the fairy garden with all kinds of other little collected treasures.

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I could keep going – but lunch is calling… what do your kids enjoy, what activities make for perfect sunny sensory for them?