Sensory Spaces for You, Me, and SPD
Life gets busy and crazy for us all. So, we all know that we need to make time to take care of ourselves and create that “me” time. Maybe some like to go for a walk while others like to knit and listen to quiet music. We are all different in how we handle the twists and turns of life and also what we do to help ourselves create calm in our lives.
But what if your neurological system wasn’t able to be regulated as easily? What if your system NEEDED certain things to calm them? For so many of our special needs children and young adults this is the case. For many, they share a diagnosis of SPD or Sensory Processing Disorder.
SPD is a disorder where the sensory information that we take in does not get turned into the appropriate behavioral response. Meaning that loud noise shouldn’t make you cry, or a tag on your shirt should not be so upsetting as to make learning nearly impossible until the tag is removed.
The symptoms of SPD vary so much and can occur in each sensory system: Visual, Auditory, Tactile, Smell/Taste, Position/Movement, and Interoception. (And there are often subtypes as well.)
SPD is often prevalent in those with ADHD, Autism and fragile X syndrome, but studies have shown that at least 1 in 20 people may be affected. And this can be a stand-alone diagnosis.
Signs and signals of SPD include:
All that follows can be signs of SPD: Sensitivity or distracted by light, trouble finding things in front of them, squinting or trouble holding eye contact, bothered by loud sounds or liking music at excessive volumes, aversion to textures or sensitivity to touch, smells bothering them to needing to smell things, needing to move, rock or fidget and even not being able to tell if they are hungry or full.
Everyone has unique ways SPD shows itself in them and as a result their needs for how to calm themselves are as unique, as well.
How do we create this calm that is needed in someone’s life who has SPD?
No one knows Sensory Processing Disorders, and the benefits of a calming space, quite like Alex Lopiccolo does. Alex is the owner of Sensory Digest and home sensory gym designer, who (is also affectionately nicknamed “The King of Swings” and “Mr. Alex”), has become a leader in his field, traveling the world to share his knowledge of sensorimotor therapy with pediatric therapists and students, conducting hands-on workshops, designing and redesigning therapy clinics, and helping families create their own sensory gyms and spaces.
With a passion for health and wellness, Alex became a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Consultant immersing himself in the different types of rehabilitation. He accepted a position in Denver, Colo. with Unique Prints Pediatric Therapy Center, a sensory integration therapy clinic where he collaborated with speech and cranial sacral therapists, music and jenchin art therapists. Through 1:1 occupational therapy to kids and providing tips and resources to parents, he realized how few resources were available for sensory therapy.
Seeing the need, he published a 3-part sensory integration therapy series on YouTube. His unique strategies quickly gained over 100,000 views, connecting him with pediatric therapists all over the world. Through live treatment workshops with therapists he began designing and redesigning therapy clinics, consulting on and even making specialized equipment from scratch – the kind of equipment that can even be installed in your home!
And this is the key point, creating a sensory space in your home does not have to mean you have a huge room, basement or budget. You just have to know your child, their SPD needs, and the ways that help them calm down the best.
You can use your small space to create a sensory room for your child.
DIY Sensory Spaces
So how can you create a sensory space or gym in your home that will calm your child’s sensory experience… or the anxieties that life throws at us? And how do you know what strategies or items will actually help? When a stress ball doesn’t do the trick, here are some tips that can help. If your child struggles with SPD it’s important to consult with an occupational therapist and be evaluated at a sensory integration therapy clinic. Understanding SPD and creating a calming sensory integration space is a journey – lean on your support team of professionals and take it one day at a time.
Choosing the space: If you’re not able to dedicate an entire room, it’s ok! Depending on your needs, you can use a closet or corner of a room – be sure it’s free of distractions and noise.
• Create a calm corner: Simply add a tent or beanbag chair in the corner of any quiet room and include sensory items for your child to regulate their emotions.
• Make a dedicated sensory wall: Sensory walls are an effective way to get tactile stimulation without taking up unnecessary room in your home.
• Convert a storage room: Take the door off any closet or storage room, add a curtain or beads, empty it out and fill it with sensory objects and comfortable padding. This will help your child know that they always have a safe place to go.
• Turn a bedroom into a relaxing space: A bedroom can double as a sensory room. Make the room adjustments we mentioned earlier and maintain a tranquil space.
• Consider a portable sensory den: Create a portable safe space that you can transport from your home to vacation or while visiting family. Having a tent or structure that you bring with you that has calming items gives your child a safe place when their routine is disrupted.
Lighting is everything: Dim lighting produces melatonin like effects, consider black out curtains.
Choose your items: Once you and your therapists determine your child’s sensitivities and needs, you can explore what tools and toys will be most effective for them: Such as
– Flashlight: This simple household item can actually help in a variety of ways; it’s a great behavioral distraction, helps with visual and fine motor and gross motor skills, and of course it’s fun and can lift spirits.
– Weighted blanket or lap pad: Adding weight or pressure activates the body’s proprioceptive sensory system, helping to feel more emotionally regulated, calm and in better control of emotion and behaviors.
– Lycra: This 4-way stretch spandex provides a deep pressure tactile sensation that can be used laying down as a weighted blanket or be hung from the ceiling to act as a swing.
– Swing: When sensory meltdowns occur the back-and-forth movement of a swing can be soothing and calming the body’s fight or flight. (See Disclaimer)
SAFETY FIRST: Make sure you consider locks on the doors, that items must be sturdy and that some items may need to be bolted down and that shelves need to be “pull down proof.” All of these safety issues should be talked about with your child’s therapist or medical professional to keep the space as safe as possible.
DISCLAIMER: Having spoken to Alex, the expert in designing home sensory spaces, know that not all strategies/equipment are safe to install on your own. Typically, Alex collaborates with contractors and occupational therapists to go over a home’s blueprints to ensure equipment is installed safely to use the equipment in the most powerful way.
You’ve got this!
To tap-in to more of Alex Lopiccolo’s knowledge, visit sensorydigest.com to access his YouTube channel, sign up for a webinar, attend an event, or invite him to build a home sensory gym in your home.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2022 Magazine