A Sensory Aware Environment. Alison Harris, Paediatric Occupational Therapist and Advanced Practitioner in Sensory Integration

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1 A Sensory Aware Environment Alison Harris, Paediatric Occupational Therapist and Advanced Practitioner in Sensory Integration

2 Brantwood Specialist School recognises the need to provide a sensory aware environment and takes into account recent research identifying that the majority of individuals with a diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder also have sensory processing issues. Difficulties with sensory integration are inevitably a barrier to learning for many of the pupils at the school. The careful preparation and planning of learning environments and teaching approaches at Brantwood demonstrates recognition of this in the manner that learning opportunities are presented. Pupils tend to have a history of severe anxiety at school; sometimes having failed in several schools and, in some cases, become school refusing pupils. The calm and house-like environment that pupils enter immediately reinforces that this is a different kind of school and the arts and crafts focus is particularly valuable in providing a non-threatening focus for those who have consistently struggled in academic learning. I was impressed at the experience and understanding of autism and sensory processing issues demonstrated throughout the school in terms of making environmental adjustments to reduce sensory overload, and the flexibility for individualised pace and learning as the norm for all. Lessons are clearly planned, but teaching staff have strategies and modifications available so that each student can be catered for in terms of speed of learning, need for repetition and short attention and concentration span. The hands-on focus of the workshops offer pupils concrete learning. They feel and experience learning in a very naturally designed and multi sensory environment, which stays away from pressures of performance or testing, whilst relying on the focus of a task literally in the pupils hands. By using practical and creative learning, pupils develop an inner drive to continue and complete work, motivated by the pleasure and a sense of fulfilment. The workshop areas cater for the needs of pupils who need their own space, and are flexible and well staffed enough to allow breaking out into smaller groups or 1:1 in other available rooms or outside in the grounds. Teaching staff respond to the needs of the pupils each day, picking up on changes in mood, or anxiety levels and move to meet presenting needs as a priority rather than being stuck into completing a curricular activity. The overall effect appears to be an increase in the student s engagement with learning through a trusting relationship with staff, which although may have meant missing out on a planned lesson today, means that tomorrow the student may return ready to begin again, rather than have increasing anxiety and negativity to learning. The textiles workshop has a section with soft rocking chairs, conducive to working, but also talking whilst engaged in an activity. Visual and auditory overload within the working area are kept to a minimum, and teaching staff are aware of the potential tactile sensitivities that are common in handling 2 3

3 unfamiliar and potentially messy creative media. Allowances are made, and options prepared that cater for those who demonstrate tactile defensiveness for example. This can include understanding limitations about what tactile input can be tolerated and alternatives found. There is also positive understanding about eye contact and the benefit of talking whilst looking at an activity as opposed to looking directly at a person. From a developmental point of view, activities are analysed to understand the developmental stages reached, and there is task breakdown to ensure that appropriate motor challenges are given to each individual. Pupils learn about safety and appropriate use of tools in a way that they are unlikely to have been able to access before. Pupils are able to demonstrate appropriate behaviour and anticipate potential problems when working in small groups or 1:1 with teaching staff. The upstairs classrooms are spacious and carpeted, reducing the potential of auditory overload from clattering chairs and echoey rooms. Although there is access to typical hi-tech equipment, its use is carefully monitored both to ensure that reliance is not developed (or repeated) on technology and that the hands-on learning experience is maintained, but also that the sensory glare and overload from fans is taken into account. Teaching staff are highly aware of the need to reduce any unnecessary sensory stimulation due to its accumulative effect throughout the day. There are blackboards in each classroom, where writing and drawing is modelled through good practice and there is awareness that feeling the sensory components of drawing and writing are essential elements of feedback and laying down of memory. There is awareness of potential distractions and the variety of sensory needs (under and over responsively and issues with registration of sensory input) that are likely in individuals who have an ASD diagnosis. For example, the contrast between one pupil who may need a high level of visual input to register and engage, to the pupil who is distracted from task by the visual movement around them. Different strategies and seating options are looked at for each individual. The wood workshop offers excellent opportunities for calming proprioceptive input learning to grade the amount of force used when sawing or sanding, as well as the deep pressure, level of exertion and physical effort used when working with wood. Woodwork gives frequent reason to work outside in the natural environment, and pupils have opportunity to mix task oriented work with enjoying age typical play such as building and climbing. 4 It is clearly understood that pupils can easily become overloaded, and may need periods of solitude and time away from social demands. There is space both upstairs and downstairs in the school which pupils are free to use there was evidence of one student who needed to walk around a small area alone at lunchtime, and in another area where a student had made a soft sitting area in a small low ceilinged corner in order to retreat for short periods. The acceptance of these needs is intrinsic to the ethos of the school. The school also has a quiet room where pupils can work one to one or use as a retreat area. There is a holistic range of sensory therapy at Brantwood which includes massage in a designated massage room. Many pupils will benefit from the deep pressure and calming input from massage. Eurythmy is also offered on a sessional basis, and incorporates movement principles including body awareness and control. 5

4 More traditional physical education is managed with care, acknowledging that fitness and movement is important, yet also understanding that team games, success and failure can have emotional connotations for many of the pupils. Every day after lunch, all pupils join in a games activity within their ability that the group do as a whole. This is a nonthreatening activity and is differentiated to meet each pupils individual ability. The outside grounds are under development, but already have an animal care area where animal handling and regular routine is required and raises awareness of needs other than one s own, and a sense of responsibility as well as learning to work in a variety of environments. Brantwood has a small market garden with a larger one planned where pupils can get involved in growing plants for use. Both animal care and food production are sensory activities providing a range of opportunities for heavy proprioceptive work, rhythmic action and a positive end product which is so often required by individuals with ASD. There are plans to include an activity track which will have vestibular challenges and motivate pupils to experience a variety of balance and tactile sensation whilst they complete the course. Specific therapy from a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist is available for pupils as required by their clinical presentation and needs. Overall, the school works to engage with pupils at their individual social and developmental level, taking into account sensory needs and meeting the modulation issues that many pupils have by making environmental changes appropriate to each student. Anxieties are responded to with practical input and the hands on tasks provide excellent opportunity for pupils to become absorbed in the activity and benefit from the low pressure approach to learning. For many this is the first step towards having a positive educational experience, in which their anxiety can start to reduce or be managed, and in which pupils begin to meet their learning potential. 6 7

5 Brantwood Specialist School 1 Kenwood Bank Nether Edge Sheffield S7 1NU

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