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Play Diary: the Window

I look up and see three faces pushed up against the glass of the main doorway. The faces belong to three small, blond children waiting to be granted entry to the play hall whilst their adults do the admin bit. What makes me smile particularly is not that they’re very cute (which they are), or even that they look very excited (which, they don’t exactly, it’s more curious-anticipation meets threatening-boredom) but, that instead of just looking through the glass, seeing what’s going on, sizing up the other kids etc.; they have opted to squash their faces right up against it. They’re definitely going for maximum surface area contact, skin to glass, I assume at the expense of actually being able to see properly. One of them has glasses and as a glasses wearer myself I have to admire his effort, they can be a big obstacle between a face and full window immersion. Somehow though, this kid’s managing.

Unable to resist such a play opportunity I put my half-built egg box marionette to one side and walk over. Initially they scarper to hide behind the legs of their still busy adults but when I crouch down and peer through the window they creep back, one at a time. I tap the glass they duck, I drum my fingers they drum back, I place my hands in front of their eyes and they move back and forth until they escape long enough to see me pull a face. New game, showing teeth, sticking out tongues, hiding faces, reappearing. The smallest is crouched in the corner looking up and me as I continue to play with the biggest. The second I dart my eyes towards her she bursts out laughing and puts a hand on the glass, we tap fingers lightly and continue to laugh as I duck in and out of eye-line. The middle reappears for a second, sticks out a tongue and disappears again. The biggest suddenly bangs a palm loudly above my head, a little harder perhaps than he meant as he looks somehow surprised and worried. I smile and knock gently opposite where his palm had been and we’re back to the beginning.

As the group prepares to come in I move out of the way and step back into the hall. I’m forgotten by two but the biggest runs in and immediately spots me; without the glass between us he’s suddenly shy but he gives me a little wave before darting outside where more unexplored territories wait. The window is filthy.

A couple of fantastically messy paint play ideas

Everybody loves paint. Aside, perhaps, from the parents of very well dressed children, but they can learn! Paint is never boring. It provides visual, tactile and olfactory sensory stimulation, it can be mixed, thrown, experimented with and can be used to transform the play space. Paint can be a play thing in itself or be a part of a larger creative and messy play. Today I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite paint based play ideas I’ve used in the playground.

Car Paint Shop

You know those orange and yellow fisher price cars which have been around forever? Well, they don’t have to be orange and yellow anymore! Here I set up a ‘workshop’ area using a tarp and some parachutes and just left the cars there with a bunch of paint. This went down incredibly well. Its messy, it uses something familiar and it allows a sense of getting-away-with-something. A bonus of this was towards the end of the day we took the cars out and turned it into a car wash activity with sponges, bubbles and plenty of water.

Moon Boots

Here I got hold of a bunch of big yellow car wash sponges and attached them to the bottom of different sized pairs of wellies with elastic. I wanted to create a sensory experience with paint that the children probably hadn’t experienced before. The sponges changed how they had to balance which gave it a challenge i hadn’t anticipated. I laid out trays of paint and let them get stuck in. Like the activity above this one had a sense of getting-away-with-something as they got to stand in paint and cover the playground with it.

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.

Diagrams and Laughter

laughter vd

. A drawing of a Venn diagram with three circles. The title is “Expression”. The circles are labelled “Emotional”, “vocal” and “physical”. The middle of the diagram where all the circles meet is labelled “laughter”.

I wanted to take a moment today to share this image. It’s a diagram I drew a couple of years ago and come back to it often when thinking about communication. It shows how laughter uses all our methods of expression at once, its emotional, physical and verbal.

I once worked with a kid who was extremely verbal but with little language use or understanding. Every day I saw her we’d sit down and i’d tell her the- always dramatic, very flamboyant- tale of how i’d got to work that day. The thing was, despite probably understanding little of the things I was saying, she always laughed in the right places. I loved these mornings and I love how humour has a way of transcending language and so many other potential barriers to communication.

I often think the most uninhibited people will be amongst strangers is when laughing. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it occupies all these means of expression at once and perhaps it’s also the way it brings down these communication barriers, makes us less self conscious or concerned and more open to that joy and connection.