Have you ever stopped to think about all the information your senses take in every day, even when you’re not thinking about it? Sitting in a quiet room you might notice that the air is a bit chilly. You hear the boiler in the basement kick in. The lights overhead may be a little too bright. The smell of the morning’s burnt toast still lingers.
For most people, this sensory processing (also called “sensory integration”) takes place seamlessly and effortlessly. Your senses pick up these inputs, but then the information is filed away while you get on with the day’s tasks.
Now imagine if you have a sensory impairment (like blindness) or a sensory processing disorder (SPD). Suddenly that burnt toast smell can be overwhelming! A parent of a child with SPD is constantly on the lookout for sensory triggers that might upset their child, and for solutions to help calm or constructively engage their child.
That is exactly what families found on March 14, when Perkins and the Massachusetts Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired (MAPVI) hosted a Hands-On Sensory Fair. Families from around New England came to Perkins to learn more about what sensory integration is and how parents can help children respond appropriately to environmental stimulation.
We know that many parents of children who are blind have plenty of real-life experience with sensory integration, so we didn’t schedule a lecture. Instead of talking to families about approaches and strategies, we let them (and their kids) experience sensory activities first hand.
The results were informative, illuminating…and fun!
We had over 100 parents, kids and siblings attend the fair, which was held in the state-of-the-art Lower School on the Perkins campus. Families met in the auditorium for a quick introduction to sensory integration from Kathy Heydt, Lower School assistant director. They were then invited to enjoy the many hands-on activity stations set up throughout the school. Greta Mangini, an occupational therapist, and Lindsey Moss, a physical therapist, were available to guide them.
Kids could play at identifying smells in the student kitchen (is that vanilla or cinnamon?) or reach through bins full of dried beans looking for hidden objects. In the Physical Therapy department, children enjoyed bouncing on trampolines and therapy balls or rocking in the many rocking chairs.
The biggest hit of the day was definitely the Lower School’s Sensory Motor Integration (SMI) room. The SMI room sits comfortably between the Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy departments, reflecting just how closely these two teams work together at Perkins.
In the SMI room, kids experienced the air pillow (a large inflatable pillow that could hold four or five children at once), the platform swing (so much fun for group swings!) and the bolster swing (which really forced kids to hang on tightly).
Parents and kids left the fair with a better understanding of sensory integration and a list of activities that can help their kids calm down or become more alert. And everyone wanted to know when they could come back for more!
Stay tuned! We’re planning another Perkins and MAPVI event on May 9. Watch the Perkins event calendar for more details.
Amber Bobnar is a digital project manager at Perkins and founder of WonderBaby.org, a website that offers information and support to parents of children who are blind. She's also mom to Ivan, a nine-year-old student who attends the Perkins Lower School.