Finding inner calm – giving children elbow room works
An innovative hub of wellbeing brings children with sensory issues into the fold
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.
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 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.