Virginia Spielmann joins us this week for the first time to discuss a Sensory Lifestyle. Virginia is a Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Expert Training Leader, a clinical consultant for the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), an occupational therapist currently working on her registration in the state of Colorado where she is now the Associate Director at the Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorders, and a PhD candidate in Infant and Early Childhood Development at Fielding Graduate University.

Sensory Lifestyle with Virginia Spielmann

by Affect Autism

What is Sensory Processing?

All of us know about our senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. There are also the sense of movement, called the vestibular sense, the sense of your body in space and the feel of your muscles and joints called the proprioceptive sense, and the sense of your internal organs and internal functions called the interoceptive sense. Each one of us has a different individual and unique sensory processing profile that describes how we process each of these senses. This is the “I” in the DIR model for Individual differences.

Sensory systems have huge promise to help us be organized, but when they’re disrupted, disorganized, or there’s poor integration they can be problematic, says Virginia. In most autistic children and in children with developmental delays or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), sensory processing challenges can prevent them from being able to stay regulated, alert, and focused. So much energy is exhausted dealing with sensory input, that there is no energy left to share attention and engage with others.

Sensory Integration and Research

A sensory diet can be put in place which gives a child little supplements of sensory work throughout the day. But the child whose need that meets is very close to typical needs anyway. Virginia prefers instead a sensory buffet because this child’s needs may differ everyday. When the child moves out of that just-right place of learning, he might need to nourish part of his sensory system. Dr. Lucy Miller, who trained under Dr. Jean Ayres, pioneer of sensory integration theory, likes to call this a Sensory Lifestyle.

Dr. Miller studied with Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder and developed this framework, or way of working that is very DIR that combines sensory integration, and utilizes sensory integration theory with relationship and regulation as key. Dr. Miller also campaigned to get Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in the DSM as a diagnosis for recognition so those children could get services, and it’s finally recognized as part of and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as well.

Research now shows that the sensory systems are critical to organizing a human being, that they’re the first systems to come online in utero, and that they can be disrupted and disorganized. Sensory motor development is poorly integrated. Elysa Marco’s research has shown brain differences and structural differences in how children with these challenges process sensory information from the different systems. Elizabeth Torres’ research shows that sensory-motor and the motor piece behind the autism diagnosis may be central rather than peripheral to autism.

How We Can Help

Children who are underresponsive to vestibular input may not have a sense of where their body is in space and this impacts their emotional development and their ability to access relationships. This individual difference leaves them feeling like astronauts walking through the world. So much of their neural real estate is committed to figuring out where their body is in space that they get fatigued. Therefore, they don’t have resources available for relatedness and learning that they otherwise are capable of doing.

They need something that can nourish their sensory systems in order to understand the space around them, and feel their body in space to prepare for numeracy skills down the road. To give them some swinging or trampoline jumping here and there throughout the day will do something, but we really want to help this child feel grounded and know where their body is in space. Then it can become a subconscious process to free up their neural real estate so the frontal lobe will come online so they can learn.

To do this, we have to figure out what their needs are, and part of that is balancing that out with what is socially appropriate. We figure out what is truly disruptive, what is my personal preference, and determine what is best for them that is also socially appropriate.

When our kids are bombarded rather than able to habituate and develop a skill like attention, it takes up all of their resources. This video by Toronto self-advocate Carly Fleishmann shows her experience in a cafe.

The Sensory Lifestyle

Throughout the day, what options does this child need to have available to them. How do we support these processes as much as possible and bring them down to a subconscious level so they can figure out who they are in the world and figure out what brings them joy, and what they want to contribute. It’s not to normalize them so they can sit at a table. As a younger child we may have to help by saying, “Aww, something doesn’t feel good. Let’s see what we can try.”

We want to think of that window of arousal within which the child can operate. Some kids need sound reducing headphones so it’s not like being in the middle of a subway all day long. There are (coloured or prism) lenses and glasses that help some children. Some kids need to listen to music. Some kids need moving chairs, some need to bounce on a ball all day long during speech therapy. If they have to concentrate so hard while sitting in an uncomfortable chair then they have no attention left for the teacher.

When the goal is for a child to joyfully engage with the world as an active social agent then we’re talking about a sensory lifestyle.

Virginia Spielmann

A Developmental Process

We want children who can self identify and self advocate but that’s a developmental process in itself. It’s a very dynamic process. This takes time to figure out and continually changes as the child develops and integrates more parts of his sensory system with practice and development.

Thinking developmentally to Virginia means that we’re bringing a process that we take for granted into more conscious thought and conversation, and we’re questioning our expectations. We’re questioning the norm and we’re trying to foster self understanding and self advocacy that will come much later in our children as we support them to become independent over time.

Change Your Expectations

Focus on the child and how to support the child, rather than what we want the child to do. Attune ourselves to the child’s needs. Educate the people in the child’s life about the real, physical challenges the child is going through that we can’t discipline or enforce. A lot of times we talk about the things they can’t do when they can do it, they just do it differently.

Where to Start?

We want to incorporate a sensory lifestyle for our child because we want them to be able to figure out who they are in the world. If they’re disrupted by their sensory systems all the time, they can’t get there to figuring out who they are, what they believe, or what their moral compass is. It’s a way of thinking about their day rather than thinking about keeping the child at the table and supplementing their day. It’s about keeping them “online”, feeling organized, good, and grounded. A sensory integration occupational therapist can help you identify what could work to set them up for much more success.

  • Installing a swing a child can access
  • Having lycra bed sheets on the bed so they can feel their body in space
  • A dream pad giving them classical music through bone conduction while they sleep
  • The way the parent dries the child with the towel in a very specific way with a soothing voice
  • Having a sensory backpack with things they can chew, or their special lenses
  • Having furniture with real movement or a move-and-sit cushion or standing desks
  • Having options for where to do work
  • Having access to monkey bars
  • Having clothing that is supportive rather than disorganizing such as snug vests that provide pressure

Deep pressure & massage is very relational and a great place to start, but remember to check in with the child about how this experience makes them feel. Don’t ever impose sensory experiences on your child. Recognize that this is an individual different than you. You’ll help him organize his body to try a swing, for instance, but the second he shows you he doesn’t like it, you stop. We want to give the child a way of saying “no”. Honouring that “no” is critical. Otherwise we’re not scaffolding the development, we’re adding to the disruption.

Recognize Communication

Finally, figuring out the way our child communicates with us goes a long way. Work with all the caregivers to review and determine the ways the child is communicating: facial expressions, tone of voice, body movements, gestures, micro expressions that are only there for a second that are rich in communication. Behind all of these things there’s intent but we often miss them because we’re looking for words which is only 7% of communication. Be an expert in how that child communicates. Know their communicative signals. Look for the “why” behind all behaviour.

Please share your stories, comments or questions in the Comments section below. If you enjoyed this podcast and are interested in sharing it, please click on the Facebook or Twitter links below. Stay tuned again in the next few months when we’ll have Virginia back for another podcast.

Until next week… here’s to affecting autism!

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