Finding inner calm – giving children elbow room works

An innovative hub of wellbeing brings children with sensory issues into the fold


When Lisa Wilkinson read step number 32 in the idiot’s guide to managing stress – “if all else fails, run away” – she knew what she had to do.

A strategic marketing manager with Baltimore Technologies at the time, having been headhunted back to Ireland from San Francisco, she had become disillusioned with the corporate world and was suffering serious burn-out.

“So I left my job and went to the Bahamas to train to be a yoga teacher,” she says in an understated summary of the sort of life-changing leap that many people dream of but few follow through.

Just over 10 years later, at the age of 46, she is happily pursuing her alternative vision at the Elbow Room, an innovative and ever-evolving “hub of wellbeing” she founded off Dublin’s north quays. Her life experience is etched into every development stage of the complex, housed in an old woollen mill.

Sitting in its newest addition – a purpose-built sensory integration suite that was officially launched last week – Wilkinson explains how the new facility has personal resonances as the mother of a daughter with sensory processing difficulties.

But it all started with yoga. Wilkinson built on her experiences in the Bahamas with further training in San Francisco, before returning to Dublin to teach yoga while also working as a consultant with business start-ups.

When an acquaintance mentioned there was a derelict unit under her art studio on North Brunswick Street, Wilkinson went along to investigate. With the backing of family members who are in the business of plumbing, ventilation and building services, she took it on to turn it into a yoga studio.

Two months after signing the lease, she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She trained, lived and taught her way through pregnancy yoga, mother and baby yoga and, in the process, became, in her own words, “a complete birth nerd”. Active birth, breastfeeding and infant massage workshops, along with family-friendly yoga and Pilates classes, all feature at the centre.

Then she opened a second studio, for hot yoga – “that was something I was really into, trying to get fit, trying to get my body back”.

After the birth of her second child, Seán, four and half years ago, she says she felt her body was in an even worse state and she started yoga classes where he, and her clients’ babies, could be minded in part of the room. And, as Seán grew, she realised the importance of catering for toddlers separately, “as first-time mothers don’t like to see their newborn babies trashed by somebody else’s toddler”.

When she saw people coming to yoga and Pilates classes with posture problems, who needed a little more help than just stretching and exercise, she invited a physiotherapist to work onsite. That went so well she decided to open a whole clinic two years ago, with services ranging from nutritional therapy and acupuncture to osteopathy and craniosacral therapy.

Special needs
After Wilkinson’s teaching of yoga had broadened to include children with Down syndrome, she decided to go to the UK to do more study of yoga with the special needs child.

Meanwhile, at home off the Navan Road, Wilkinson was aware her daughter, Tuilelaith, who will be 10 next month, was struggling with school work.

“She was having resource hours in school because she was not reaching the same developmental milestones as her peers, as far as writing and reading were concerned.” Homework was taking about two hours a day as Tuilelaith would be all over the place.

“I thought it was just my bad parenting, the fact that I could not get her to sit still,” she admits.

Then occupational therapist Máire Ní Ghiobaláin, who was attending yoga classes at the Elbow Room, responded to a blog Wilkinson wrote looking for people interested in leading sessions for children with special needs. At the same time the development officer at the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland, Harry Conway, approached her about the centre becoming a resource for children of its members.

Similar visions
With serendipity, their “three worlds collided”, says Wilkinson. She and Ní Ghiobaláin, who had worked for five years in therapeutic camps as a consultant with the Serious Fun Network, a foundation set up by the late Paul Newman, found they had similar visions.

Ní Ghiobaláin gave up her job to join forces but first took an extended trip to Brazil as her new employer project-managed the transformation of another derelict section of the mill.

Empty of children, the sensory integration room looks sparse, with dark-stained floorboards and clear white walls on three sides. The far wooden wall conceals ropes, while the tightly tied-up swings and hammocks dangling from the ceiling give no hint of their unfurled colours.

The room is purposely uncluttered because some children with processing sensory difficulties can be over-stimulated and easily distracted. The equipment is taken out as it is needed, explains Ní Ghiobaláin, senior occupational therapist at the centre, where 50 staff now work various hours, including eight full-time.

Sensory processing
Sensory processing is how we interpret information in the environment through our senses. In addition to the well-known five external senses, we have three hidden ones, including proprioception, which is related to knowing your body position in space and force you might use for various activities.

Children with poor body awareness may bump into walls or other children in the playground; another sign is breaking lots of pencils because they use too much force in handwriting.

This also causes hand fatigue and, as a result, they are unable to keep up at the writing pace of their peers.

The other two internal senses are tactile, the response to touch, and vestibular, which concerns head position and sense of movement.

Children with a poor vestibular sense may be nervous about having their feet off the ground or, on the other hand, crave a lot of movement. Excessive fidgeting or humming is a sign of children trying to cope with sensory difficulties.

Those with a strong tactile sensitivity often can’t tolerate getting their hair or nails cut, or find it very difficult to wear clothes with seams on them. Intense meltdowns are common and typically parents would talk about their child “as a little worrier”, says Ní Ghiobaláin.

Occupational therapy aims to over-ride their responses. “We can rewire the brain and develop new neural pathways that can process that information in more appropriate way,” she explains. “They are over-responding to the stimulus.”

She works to educate parents about how their children’s behaviour is a result of their body’s needs and to give them ways to work with them at home.

“If it is not dealt with therapeutically, they will continue to have those difficulties,” says Ní Ghiobaláin.

“Sensory processing difficulties occur as difficulties on their own but are also prevalent in children with diagnoses,” says Wilkinson.

“You will find that a lot of children with dyspraxia also have sensory processing issues as will children with autism, Asperger’s, and so on.”

Parents and siblings
Modelled to a degree on Sensational Kids in Kildare, the Elbow Room is also keen to cater for parents and siblings.

There is no point in having them sitting in the corridor while one child attends a session, points out Wilkinson, so if it is not appropriate that they all join in, volunteers take siblings to do other fun activities and parents are encouraged to take a class or clinic session, such as massage, at a low cost.

An estimated one in six children has some level of sensory processing difficulties that have an impact on them academically, socially or emotionally. Wilkinson never suspected they were the cause of some of her daughter’s wayward behaviour until Ní Ghiobaláin suggested that she bring Tuilelaith in. She identified problems with auditory processing and proprieception.

Suddenly Wilkinson understood why, if she shouted up in the morning for Tuilelaith to do her teeth and bring down her school bag, inevitably only one would be done. She couldn’t cope with more than one command at a time.

She was also astounded at the effect of the “hot dog roll” that Ní Ghiobaláin performed on her daughter – basically rolling her up in a yoga mat and squishing her.

“I tried that and then she sat down for 20 minutes, completely still, and did her homework.”

A follow-up visit to a behavioural optometrist, as recommended by Ní Ghiobaláin, also proved to be an eye-opener. She diagnosed a developmental problem in how Tuilelaith’s eyes deal with the change from short focus to long focus and also demonstrated how the fitting of special lenses transformed her ability to read.

Recognising difficulties
Wilkinson initially wondered why on earth the school had not picked up on these issues but soon realised that primary teachers are not trained to recognise these difficulties.

“I was kind of angry for a while,” she says, before focusing her energies on trying to do something for these children at the Elbow Room.

Bill* also attests to the benefits of the “hot dog roll” as well as other techniques he has learnt to do with his eight-year-old son, who has dyspraxia, since they started coming to the Elbow Room a couple of months ago. They are working on his concentration, listening skills and spatial awareness.

Describing dyspraxia as an “invisible disability”, Bill says he and his wife were first alerted to their only child’s problems by his teacher in junior infants, who noticed he found it hard to sit up straight and concentrate in the classroom. Once he was diagnosed through private assessment, they found that activities recommended by the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland, such as horse-riding, made a “phenomenal” difference.

Although their son has lots of friends, “he knows he’s different”, says Bill, who observes how he relates better with children who also have dyspraxia, which is why the opportunity to do one of a series of therapeutic summer camps that started at the Elbow Room this week, is particularly welcome.

As a mother of four children, Deirdre* appreciates the sibling service at the Elbow Room – “it’s like an extra pair of hands”, she says. And she is particularly pleased that not only her son who has sensory processing difficulties is going to the summer camp but so is his brother.

She has seen a transformation in her son since he started attending Ní Ghiobaláin. When once he was very anxious about school and would have pains in his stomach in the mornings, now he “bounces out the door”.

“I can see that he is calm and more comfortable in himself,” she adds. “He enjoys life much more.”

*Names have been changed
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