I am a sensory engagement specialist. I spend a lot of my time looking at how our early sensory experiences shape and support our development. I have worked in special schools, mainstream schools, nurseries and universities and in adult care settings. The vast majority of my work is focused on those who have profound and multiple learning disabilities, oftentimes this work overlaps into areas that are relevant to other people who have additional learning needs or experience the sensory world differently in some way.
You might think that this wouldn’t include looked-after children, those children who are fostered or adopted, because those children are essentially typically developing children, who just have different homes. They are children without diagnosis of particular needs, children without neurological differences. You would be wrong.
The experiences we have up until the age of two, give our brain its potential, and those we have up until the age of six inform our brain about what will be required of it. A brain that had not had the opportunity to experience a rich array of stimulus in a safe and secure environment by the time it is two has less neural pathways in it than a brain that has had those opportunities. A brain that experiences a restrict environment or a hostile one up until the age of six will wire itself to match that space.
In this country we are very careful about taking children into care. The importance of being with our biological parents is recognised, and social services will make every effort to keep a child with their family, even if that family is not providing the best care. This is because we know that mediocre care within the biological family can be better than exceptional care from a foster or adopted family. We do not take children away from their families lightly.
Most children in the care system have come from an environment that was a danger to them, and that environment was the background for their neurological development. They run at a deficit compared to those children who were able to grow up safe and secure within their own homes. We could explore this deficit in many ways but I am going to pick just two, one that is often unthought of because it is unseen:
The effect of childhood trauma
Children in care are likely to have experienced some degree of trauma, being taken away from your family is traumatic, and often we do not know what traumas they may have experienced prior to that. Surprisingly trauma is not a direct response of something horrific happening to us. Two people can experience the same horrible event and one will be traumatised and the other not. This is because trauma is sustained by people who, when faced with the awful event, were unable to, or were prevented from, doing anything about it. Those people who were able to fight, run away, who had some power to influence proceedings will suffer from having been a part of that event but will not be traumatised by it. When you understand this you realise how easy it is to traumatise a child. The child that hears their parents arguing, but cannot speak out, the child that hears their mother beating their father, but cannot intervene. Even though events like these do not happen to the child, and often happen behind closed doors so are unseen by the child, they can still result in trauma.
Trauma has a physical effect on the brain. Disabilities or differences we can see are easy to acknowledge and provide for, but those hidden within a ‘normal’ looking child are often more dangerous for the child who holds them. All disabilities come in primary and secondary form, your primary disabilities are those that are a direct result of the condition you have, your secondary disabilities spring from your primary disabilities not being understood or provided for. Often secondary disabilities are the more life impinging. For example your primary disability might be that you have lost your left arm from below the elbow. Your secondary disability could be a crippling lack of self confidence that makes you afraid to go out.
By understanding trauma we can better provide for the children in our care who may have experienced it. Trauma is sustained when the fight or flight hormones are triggered in our brains but we cannot act in response to them. Action in effect processes these hormones and they disperse from the brain, without action they continue to flow even after the event that triggered them is over. This continual flow of strong hormones through the brain affects its structure and the way the person responds to experience. In essence their emotional thermometer has been reset to way out of normal ranges, tuned for extreme stress so many of the subtlies and the gentler kinder emotions barely register. Their body is stuck in fight or flight mode meaning they react often aggressively without seeming to think. A paragraph in a blog post is a start but it is by no means a comprehensive understanding of trauma, for a better insight try The Body Keeps Score by Bessel A. Van der Kolk one of the most experienced trauma specialists of our time.
Why your phone's camera is a danger
I said at the top of this article that a child’s early experiences are critical to the successful wiring of the brain. In the past few years I have had the joy of being involved with a handful of baby groups that offer things like messy play or sensory play, gorgeous experiences for the developing mind. The perfect place for those children who have begun life at a deficit to get some catch-up experiences. But they are not there.
In all the baby groups I have attended I have met only one adoptive parent, and they were incredible nervous, constantly getting up and moving their baby away from the fun. Why? Because phones were out, people were taking photos of their child looking cute covered in paint, and her baby might get into the background. She explained to me that the child’s birth family were involved in knife and gun crime and that when people post photos like the ones being taken around her on social media they tend to tag where they were. “If the family find out where she is, they might try to come and get her.” She explained.
I looked around the room of loving parents indulging their babies with time and stimulation. The thought of threatening people wielding guns was far from their minds. As she clutched her baby to her, her child will have been experiencing the pounding of her heart, the anxiety, the stress. She told me that she had asked the teacher to ban phones but had been refused. She told me that out of all the other mothers that she went her adoption programme with she was the only one who brave enough to take her child to a class.
These children are unseen and excluded even before they enter our settings. It is our duty to try and understand the hidden challenges they have faced and continue to face and to protect them from secondary conditions developing. And we need also to be aware of how dangerous the photos we casually snap when out and about can be to vulnerable people like that baby.
Don’t miss a thing!
- Using a different lens for neurodivergent children: Don’t treat them as younger, give them the tools to achieve - July 17, 2022
- Exploring the “subtle spectrum” of autistic discovery - August 24, 2021
- Ambitious and inclusive sensory story-telling - October 29, 2020