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"That Tickles! Sensory Stimulation Techniques"

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: .

     "Jessica's" big smile filled the room. This was her favorite time of day. During her day program, Jessica gets to experience the world she cannot access for herself, the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and tastes we all take for granted. She especially likes the featherduster!

     For those with multiple disabilities, getting connected with the environment around themselves is not that easy. In fact, in many cases, there is not even an awareness of the rich variety of sensory experiences waiting for them "out there". Their world is often the "view" from a beanbag, or wheelchair, or bed. If you've ever been ill for more than a few days, you know the feeling, "boring!"

     The impact of having limited motor skills, auditory or visual limitations,or being bedridden due to illness or significant physical conditions, is major. Our motivation to be involved in our daily activities depends largely on our senses. Consider, if you will, what it would be like not to know the scent of the forest, the taste of strawberry jam, the feel of wet mud between your toes, the sight of a sky at sunset, or the sound of a thunderous waterfall. Even the little things like rustling leaves, pancakes and syrup, the city lights at night, well, you get the picture. Life would be very dull and uninspiring without a generous sensory diet to keep us healthy.

     For some, these experiences can make a difference between life and death."Failure to thrive" syndrome is a condition in which a child or adult has lost the will to be alive. This is a state of withdrawal, where everything shuts down. Often self-starvation occurs. Studies have shown that young children and elderly persons are especially vulnerable. Why? It is because they are unable to get the sensory stimulation they need to get excited about living without some assistance from the outside. The sense of touch and the sound of a familiar voice are especially important.

     Providing the opportunities for all of the senses to be activated should be a fun and meaningful experience for those being cared for and their care providers. As the child or adult reacts to a variety of sensory stimuli during a session, notes can be kept which will be of great value to others also involved in assisting this person. Personal likes and dislikes can be discovered. This information can easily be used to adapt other activities in positive ways. For instance, putting on a favorite tape or CD can motivate exercise and motor development routines.

     In school settings, adult day programs, and residential programs, I have set aside a special time each day for sensory stimulation activities. It is a time of sharing unlike few other experiences that have been programaticly developed to improve the lives of developmentally disabled persons. Setting this activity up is relatively easy and inexpensive.

      Although I am told that you can buy a sensory stimulation kit, let me advise you that it is nothing more than a collection of objects which would provide tactile, olfactory, visual, auditory, and gustetory stimulation. In other words, things to feel, smell, see, hear, and taste. I have often had to improvise when funding was low, quickly finding that most of the items in these kits can be bought, borrowed, or found, with little trouble.

     Here's a "shopping list":

     To FEEL - feathers, hand lotion, sandpaper, paper, various small textured stones, various pieces of cloth, such as terry, (soak in warm and cold water for variations), silk, cotton, corduroy, wood or cardboard squares,4"X4" on which you have glued bits of string, yarn, or made patterns with sand, small hand vibrator, small hand held fan, etc.

     To SMELL - acquire film containers, preferably black, (to keep sun out), and place a small piece of cotton or cotton ball in each container. Then saturate cotton with scents such as after shaves, lemon juice, vinegar, perfumes, coffee, extracts, (vanilla, almond, rum, etc.) Include things that are nice to smell , as well as, not so nice to smell. Label each container.

      To SEE - flashlight, tinted film in 4"X4" sheets,(get basic colors: red, yellow, blue, you can double them up to create other colors then place across the lense of your flashlight), small toys with flashing lights, (I used to have a cool ray gun), small mirror, shiny object such as keys, fake jewelry, etc.

      To HEAR - CD/cassette/radio player(s)and a variety if music and pre-taped sounds, horns, whistles, small electric keyboard, sound making toys, rattles, etc.

      To TASTE - food samples, (think sweet sour, salty, bitter). Consider a sample of what's for lunch or dinner. Add to this component a spoon, bowl, tongue depressor, toothbrush, cup, straw, etc., for presenting the items, or small samples of them.

     Once you get the idea, you will start finding yourself collecting all sorts of cool things for your "kit". Keep in mind that we are sharing the world!

     Now, when I've used these items in the past I have set up a checklist for each session's experiences. I would list items in the kit under each of the five sensory areas, down the left hand side. Leave food items blank until date of session then write them in, if you prefer. Then create several columns, side by side, to give dates of record, (usually at the top of each column), and a place to rate responses. I used a simple rating scale: + = positive reaction, - = negative reaction, N/R = no response or couldn't tell. As each item is presented, allow no less than one minute to experience the item. If there is an extremely negative reaction stop. But you may want to re-do the experience later to verify that the action was truly associated with the sensory experience. Include only two or three items from each section per day.If the experience is positive continue it up to five minutes before changing.

     Other tips: ALWAYS CHECK RECORDS, if they are available, for known allergies or previously observed severe negative reactions to environmental stimuli. Check dietary notes, as well. Eliminate these items from your list and note these items in your records. Vary sound volumes to determine acuteness of hearing. Make notes of volume adjustments that are both loud enough but not so loud that it is irritating. Be sure to prepare foods which are being sampled so that they can be safely tasted. Puree and apply small amounts to tongue or lips with tongue depressor or toothbrush, if necessary. Be very aware of choking hazards, even with liquids! Rub textured items on various body parts, face, hands, arms, legs, feet. Some areas may be hyper-sensitive , while others may be hypo-sensitive. This can give you clues concerning desensetization needs. If a person has a history of seizures you may not want to use a vibrator, pulsing lights, or pulsing sounds such as sirens.

     Of course, this activity can be done at home, as well as in a program setting. And don't forget, enjoying a day at the park, or anywhere else in the community adds greatly to the opportunities for sensory experiences.

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