Making sense of the senses

© Ollie Gapper Photography

Gracie Hughes in her sensory room – © Ollie Gapper Photography

We find out more about therapies available to people with sensory disorders…

We all know about the five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. However, there’s a few others out there that people don’t think about as much, but still have a big impact on your life – things like balance, coordination, spatial awareness, vibration, pain, temperature and pressure are all senses too.

When you think about it, each of these things has an impact on your day-to-day life. It might affect the sandwich you buy for lunch, how quickly you learn to use that new computer programme, the way you tie your shoelaces, the clothes you pick out in the morning, where you choose to stand on the busy morning train – everything.

So what would life be like if you had trouble understanding the impact which your senses have on you? Sensory processing disorder, or sensory integration (SI) disorder, can affect a person’s everyday living, learning and behaviour. SI is linked to a range of conditions and disabilities, such as learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, neurological disabilities, cerebral palsy and brain injury.


SI disorder is hugely complex, and can present itself in a number of ways. “Sensory integration disorder is complicated and no two people are the same,” explains occupational therapist and sensory integration therapist Rowan Bradley, director of Children’s Therapy Solutions Ltd, an organisation providing children’s occupational therapy services across the UK. “A child can appear under or over active in their environments, constantly fidget or appear not to hear you. They may look ‘clumsy’ in the way they walk or appear to trip over the pattern in the carpet. They may prefer to tip toe when walking or lean on walls. They may present with poor verbal execution to the point where others are unable to understand them and are unable to eat or drink without making a mess.”

The condition was first explored by Dr Anna Jean Ayres, a qualified developmental psychologist and occupational therapist. From her research, she created a framework to help patients develop or manage their senses and, in turn, learn new skills and interact with the world around them.


Dr Ayres’ SI therapy is different for each patient, and a programme will be developed to meet their specific needs. Following assessments carried out by a qualified sensory integration therapist, a programme will be put in place to be used at home, in the clinic and at school that will help the patient achieve certain aims and goals. This can range from playing with sensory toys to exploring textures and sounds which the patient enjoys and challenging areas in which they aren’t as comfortable.

“The techniques used will develop the child’s functional performances to enable them to improve their independence to access both home and other environments,” Rowan explains. “In a clinic, sensory integration therapy is child-lead through play and will use multi-sensory inputs to encourage exploration with all the individuals’ sensations and use suspended equipment to explore and positively challenge their abilities.”

SI therapy doesn’t promise a miracle cure, however, Rowan does point out: “The therapist can support the child to develop and master new skills, and enable them to experience new challenges with enthusiasm, motivation and positivity.”


While SI therapy is carried out by qualified practitioners, Snoezelen is less specialised, using tools such as bubble tubes, soft lighting and a range of toys to create a soothing, stimulating space.

Sensory rooms are used around the world by people with autism, developmental difficulties, communication problems, dementia and brain injury. While the medical benefits are scarce, people do see a real benefit in terms of behaviour and emotional state.

Hannah Hughes’ 18-month-old daughter Gracie has an undiagnosed genetic condition, the symptoms of which include low muscle tone, developmental delay and sensory problems. When Gracie gets frustrated, she can be very difficult to calm down. One visit to hospital in London brought a solution – the in-house sensory room calmed her instantly. The Hughes family have now converted a room in their house into a sensory room for Gracie.

“The effect it has on her is indescribable,” Hannah says. “Nothing will calm her, not even a cuddle from me or her dad. Then we take her up to the sensory room and she’s instantly calmed.

“The room is plain white, and it’s got a raised platform on one side with a bubble tube, padding and mirrors, and soft cushions. On the floor, there’s a sensory tent with clear balls which she loves. Then there’s fibre optic trails, a galaxy projector, and there’s also sensory toys for her.”

Howford Primary's sensory room

Howford Primary’s sensory room


Lots of special schools now have sensory rooms for pupils too, helping children with a range of needs. Howford Primary School in Glasgow recently opened the doors to its sensory space for pupils after one dad, Chris Dunn, ran a 60km Ultra Marathon in New York to raise £10,104.59 for the room’s installation.

The school is using the room both as a calming space for pupils – 65% of students have autism spectrum disorders – and to provide sensory integration exercises for children who are on specific programmes.

“We have support assistants who work with the children and carry out exercises and activities with the equipment,” the school’s depute head Kirsty Dempster explains. “We try and regulate their senses, to help them to work through the day and be calm. For some children, it’s just for relaxation.”

The Howford sensory room includes vibroacoustic seating – chairs which vibrate as music plays – bubble tubes, lighting and lots of sensory toys for the children to explore. While they room has only been in operation for a few weeks, Kirsty and her colleagues are seeing a real difference in their pupils already.

“When the children come in, some are quite low arousal so the sensory room picks them up a bit,” she explains. “It encourages interaction between the children as well – it’s a less formal environment than the classroom. You see a lot more language between the children when they’re in the room.”

If you feel someone you know could benefit from sensory help, whether it’s through therapist-lead SI or the Snoezelen approach, get in touch with your GP or local occupational therapist now to see what support is available in your area.



Children’s Therapy Solutions Ltd
01664 567 917

Enable March/April 2013

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