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Playful Communication #2: Permission

In play work we talk a lot about permission and in my role I definitely spend a lot of time giving it. Sometimes it’s something simple, just a “yes, you can use that” or “yes, you can climb that’. Sometimes it’s a more complicated “yes if” or maybe a “tell me more….” Sometimes children aren’t just seeking permission but guidance. Sometimes they come to the playground and just can’t stop asking permission because they’re not used to so much freedom. Sometimes someone might just want permission to talk and share something with you. A very common scenario, and a personal favourite, is when someone isn’t really asking permission at all; like when a child demands to know if they can triple back-flip of the roof of the shed or tip a bucket of water over your head. Usually this will be something they perceive as either risky or rule-breaking and often it’s a test of who you are and what kind of relationship they’re going to have with you. And, though it’s probably not going to be a straight up yes, with a bit of creativity it usually doesn’t have to be a hard no. Taking a child’s request seriously shows them you take them seriously and so respect and value their ideas. This creates a relationship where they’re more likely to share their ideas and play in a freer way. Of course the other side of giving permission is asking for it, and that’s what I want to explore a little more here.

Ask!

Imagine you’re observing a play session, you notice one, very determined child, chasing another holding a raggedy straw hat. The child being chased doesn’t look like they are having fun and they are starting to get angry. You walk over and figure out that the first child is trying to make the other wear the hat, the child doesn’t want to because it’s a super gross hat (you secretly agree; it’s always a super gross hat). You step in to explain to the first child that the other doesn’t have to wear the hat and it’s better to ask the other child and listen to their answer. Both children are upset but the hat-fiend apologises and you (forever a martyr) ask if they’ll put the hat on you. The first child feels confused though. Perhaps because yesterday, when they were upset because another child kept touching their hair, the grown-up said to ‘be nice and let them’ and when they go to grandma’s house they have to give her a cuddle before bed even though they don’t like how it feels.

Always ask. Adults often don’t ask children permission, and they should. Asking doesn’t have to be verbal, it might be using a symbol or a gesture or simply giving a clear opportunity to say no. Asking permission isn’t just important to your relationship with the child in the present moment, it is also part of a responsibility we have to model positive boundaries and good use of consent for that child as they continue to grow and navigate new situations and relationships.

Disabled children will likely have had regular contact with medical and healthcare professionals throughout their lives and so will be used to strange adults investigating their bodies and minds in a way that many non-disabled children won’t have. If they have personal care needs they will also be used to adults of varying degrees of familiarity attending these. This just makes it all the more important to be clear and conscientious about asking permission when physically engaging with a child. It is vital to respect the child’s person-hood and ownership of their body to enable them to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate kinds of touch.

There is a troubling behaviour I see over and over again where adults think that it’s okay to invade a child’s space or touch their body. When I worked in a school with profoundly and physically disabled children I would often notice that supply teachers or new staff wouldn’t hesitate to touch a child’s head or shoulder or lean on their chair within seconds of meeting them, not even giving the child time to process that the person was near them. This would infuriate me, it’s almost as if the more vulnerable an adult would perceive a child to be the less need they would have to ask permission. This could be down to an assumption that the child can’t give permission or an assumption that the adult doesn’t need permission. I think in part this behaviour is a result of people not knowing how to navigate relationships where communication is non-verbal. Not knowing how to communicate with someone can often lead to ignoring or disrespecting their person-hood. But with time and patience we can always find a way to ask.

yes no sign

Two rectangles side by side. The first is green, it has a line drawing of a closed fist with arrows indicating in moving up and down. It is titled ‘yes’. The second rectangle is red and has an image of a closed hand with index, middle and thumb touching and then opening. it is titled ‘no’.

Establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’

In any relationship establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is key. When meeting a child for the first time this is part of my role as a play worker, it’s something I always prioritise, particularly as a lot of the children I work with may not say yes or no in the expected or simple way. In a play environment there are plenty of opportunities to do this. I’ve broken these down into four categories, although I’m sure there are many more.

  1. “Can I…?”

This can be a part of introducing yourself to someone, asking ‘can I join you’ when a child is playing or sitting somewhere can tell you straight away how someone communicates consent. If they say no, or walk or turn away, then respect this. It doesn’t mean they won’t want to spend time with you at some other point and if you respect their response in that moment they are more likely to want to do so. You might also ask “can I show you this” or “can you tell me about that”.

  1. Offering choices.

For a child who is maybe shy or who you’re unsure about how to communicate with; offering them a clear choice of something to do can be a fairly low pressure way to engage with. Make sure you keep the choices you offer simple and low impact. Use options that are visual and concrete rather than abstract. For example “Do you want to use this parachute?” rather than “Do you want to play a game outside or go to the art room”

  1. Expressing approval or dislike

Watching a child to gauge how they interact with and respond to an environment can give you indicators of how they may communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This is perhaps a less direct method but for someone who communicates non-verbally you may need to think a bit wider about how to ask permission. Recognising how they express liking or disliking something can help with this. For example you may see a child wrinkle up their face and pull their head back when there is a loud bang. Later on when you approach them with a fluffy puppet they may wrinkle their face again, perhaps you could sit down within their eye line without the puppet and see how their body language changes.

  1. Asking someone who knows the child already

If you’re getting to know a child who has complex communication needs it can be helpful to chat to someone who knows them better. Just make sure you don’t take what they say as set in stone. Because every individual relationship is different. But finding out some basic information can help you avoid doing particular things that might trigger behaviours or make someone uncomfortable or scared.

Permission is an ongoing part of any relationship and works both ways. When asking permission you’re also giving permission to someone to say yes or no. You’re creating a space where they can have autonomy and feel comfortable to express themselves.

Permission in the Play Space

Permission and consent are key functions of communication and central to enabling free play. Permission allows a child to explore ideas and experiences, in the best kinds of play spaces children should feel that they already have permission to be themselves and should be encouraged to ask and seek consent from other children and adults in their joint play. As play workers, as carers and as adults it’s our responsibility to keep listening, observing and learning so we can create the best spaces and experience for children in our care.


My first piece in this series focused on shifting our understanding of communication as simply the imparting and receiving of information to communication as the way we share our worlds with each other. It has many different elements which include both ‘functional’ communication such as question asking or requesting things and also ‘expressive’ communication which we may use to share our emotional or sensory experience. I also highlighted the importance of de-prioritising speech as the main or most valuable way of communicating to better understand and recognise other kinds of communication and people who use them. If you like you can find that first piece here: https://playradical.blog/2016/12/09/playful-communication-the-joys-of-the-non-functioning/?preview_id=221&preview_nonce=6dd19bcf26

 

 

Let me process my sensory processing

content warning: this post contains discussion of mental health and has self harm mentions

I’m a sensitive guy

When I say I’m Sensitive, I really mean it, in its most literal sense. Certain noises make me flinch and squirm, certain lights make me nauseous, and food is a textural minefield. Wagon wheels (a biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow- a terrible terrible combination) must have been on offer one week in primary school because they showed up in my lunch box out of the blue. I cried every lunchtime that week at just the idea of having to eat them. Ten years later I held back tears in a Subway eating a sandwich with two different crumbly textures that just didn’t work together. It’s kind of embarrassing being a teenager crying at a sandwich in front of your new uni pals. Especially when you can’t explain why and are not even sure if an honest explanation would even improve things. Little old ladies shaking tins and handing out charity stickers were a childhood enemy; to this day I still can’t deal with stickers, sticky labels and certain types of plasters (I’ve made a lot of progress with this one). Light touch can set off a jarring metallic sharpness that runs through my whole body, it can trigger a sudden intense anger and distress; a total mood killer. There is an ingredient in certain cosmetics and toiletries that I’ve narrowed down to being in ‘berry scented’ things, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and disgusted. I once dated someone who had a raspberry lip balm, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but whatever the underlying reason, it turns out no one wants to hear “I really like you but sometimes kissing you makes me want to vomit”.

I could go on (and kind of want to because this is pretty therapeutic) but what I’m trying to get across here is that while sensory processing issues can be unpredictable, wide-ranging, bizarre and effect every area of a person’s life they can, perhaps most importantly, be intensely emotional. I’ve noticed that when we talk about things like sensory overload or challenging behaviours being a response to sensory stimulation we have a tendency to emphasise the physical side of things. Being hypersensitive to noise is often explained as being physically painful, and I’m not saying this is untrue, but for me it’s the emotional impact of noise that causes the most pain*.

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Sensory processing and mental health

Let me give you some context; I’ve experienced problems with my mental health for at least the last ten years (before that I don’t really have much emotional memory other than particularly strong points of distress or joy) I’m a chronic depressive, I have ongoing anxiety and occasional panic attacks, I have experienced intrusive and obsessive thoughts, this effects my sleep and tiredness levels, digestion and eating. This is just a part of my life and its okay, it really is, whilst these things are inseparable from my day to day life they are also not fixed, they change and I change. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how intrinsic my sensory experiences are too my mental health. And it frustrates me that had I understood and the people around me acknowledged that sensory issues have an emotional impact I may have had to struggle a whole lot less.

For example when I have been in noisy environment, particularly one with many layers of noise such as a pub or busy supermarket, and move out of that into a quiet one I will immediately feel relief but then following that will often fall very quickly into a depressive and sometimes even suicidal state. In the past this has manifested in compulsive self-harm and related behaviours. It’s taken me a long time to recognise this as a pattern but now I can try to manage this in a healthier way. I can’t always prevent or avoid this state but I can understand it and take steps to look after myself. This is when I haven’t even got to the level of what I’d describe as sensory overload. When I hit that level I just stop working. My thoughts can’t organise themselves, I can’t speak or communicate properly, it can feel like I’m internally screaming, I feel helpless and all I can do if just desperately try to will myself out of existence. The comedowns from this are usually slower to happen but can last a lot longer. It’s very rare that I hit this level but I’m constantly aware that I can and the constant low-level stress of existing in an unpredictable world like this can be just as damaging as those moments when it peaks.

Lack of Control

So there’s that immediate emotional impact but there’s a more subtle long term force at work; the emotional impact of an ongoing lack of control. It begins with being a kid and feeling constantly on the verge of distress, you don’t have the communication skills to explain what’s going on or even the ability to understand it. You probably just have very strong ideas about what is okay and what you desperately need to avoid. You create games and rules to try and control these things the best you can but they never work all the time. Not only can you not control the environment around you but you also can’t control your own reaction to it. You keep trying and as you get older you develop new coping mechanisms, these have different shelf lives, some things might work for days, some for months, years. You have different options, you can become the centre of the universe as you know it, from this point you can make the most noise and draw the most attention and gain control over your environment that way. Or you can withdraw and create a smaller world that just has you in it. Either way you still can’t find sensory balance that other people just don’t seem to need to think about it. It’s a mystical superpower because no matter how hard you try you feel under attack from the world and you keep crashing. You might find it difficult to connect with others, go to new places, and do new things because you’re constantly working to keep your mind and body safe. No experience stands alone, they all happen in the context of both your memories and current emotional state. The impact this has had on me is huge and I meet so many children who seem to be experiencing something similar.

Why am I telling you all this

We all work every day to find balance between the information our senses are constantly receiving and the energy and time we put into understanding and reacting to it. For some people they never have to think about this, it more subconscious behind the scenes kind of stuff, for some it may occupy every moment and use every resource they have. I see this in children I work with who have to limit and control their every experience in order to function or children who find their way through the world using repetition and constant sensory stimulation to create predictability and safety. My experiences is neither of these but it’s also not fixed and will change.

I’ve focussed on hypersensitivity to noise in this article because it is very common amongst people with sensory issues and is perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of sensory distress. This may be because its impact can be particularly obvious and the problematic stimulus is often easy to identify for people outside of the experience. Effective interventions can be pretty easy to achieve by either removing the noise or changing the individual’s experience of the noise through the use of headphones, white noise, ear plugs/defenders etc. However unlike something like sensitivity to different food tastes or textures where the individual can control what they eat, you can never have full control over what you hear. And this becomes more problematic the more someone goes new places, experiences new things.

I strongly believe the emotional impact of sensory issues needs to be acknowledged and explored; especially by those in caring roles such as mine. Sensory processing issues are super common in people who are autistic, have ADHD, learning disabilities and/or fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity but they are hard to understand. Because of this we often look at them in a simplified way, for example, thinking if you simply get rid of a noise that was distressing someone then that experience is over for the individual. Now there is ‘no reason’ for them to behave in a way you find challenging. We need acknowledge the broader impact of these experiences if we want to support people kindly and effectively.

Let’s let people be complicated and be willing to not always understand but to keep trying. And if I ever appear physically repulsed when you offer me food, please try not to take it too personally.

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* I want to note a couple of issues at play here. Firstly the idea of pain being either physical or emotional is false. Pain is complex and I don’t believe it is ever solely physical or solely emotional and to force this separation is to oversimplify and ignore parts of an individual’s experience. Secondly with this in mind, we broadly consider physical pain to be more legitimate or important than emotional pain. Again I don’t believe in this idea and will be writing more on this issue in the future.