Sensory toys don’t work on their own.

Sensory toys don't work on their own.

Suppose I told you I was going to teach your child maths, and then I dumped a load of maths resources on the floor: protractors, bricks, calculators, even an old slide rule or two, and then left them to it. Would you consider I had supported your child in learning maths? The curious child might learn a little bit of maths from such a presentation, but your expectations would not be high.

Learning the skills associated with emotional regulation are as hard, if not harder, than learning maths, so why would we think that simply presenting children with resources would work? Yet all too often this is how it is presented.

Have you ever seen an advert for a set of sensory toys sold to help children who need sensory input to regulate themselves? The implication is you buy the kit of toys, hand them over to the child, and ta-da the work is done. Sometimes it's not just little kits, but massive expensive sensory rooms – often these are sold with the tag line that they will help children with sensory needs to regulate those needs.

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Helping is demonstrating

When you think about it, this is a very strange claim: that a group of people who struggle to regulate their sensory input will do this any more successfully in a room that offers greater input that then will do elsewhere? Ah, but the room puts it into their control, the suppliers will say. Well yes, of course. But is control alone enough? An alcoholic is someone who struggles to regulate their intake of alcohol. Would we say putting them in a wine shop and giving them control over it would help them? An extreme example but you catch my drift.

With all of these things it's not so simple as just presenting the stimulation, or handing over control; we need to be demonstrating, teaching, supporting. Take settle jars as an example, you will have seen these: beautiful clear containers filled with liquid and glittering particles that slowly settle after being shaken up. “Great for helping kids to calm down,” you will be told. They are easy to make: just find a clear container (a washed out drinks bottle will do) buy a pack of glitter glue pens (you can get packs of five from discount stores for around a pound) choose one or two pens and squeeze their contents into the bottle, mix with warm water and add any other little bits of decoration you would like, I’ve added sequins to mine and even a little floating plastic duck to one. They’re great fun to make: have a go. But don’t expect simply handing it over to a child to have much effect beyond a few moments of engagement with the beauty of the object.

So how do they work?

Many children—and adults too—with neurodiverse conditions, struggle to internally recognise and regulate their emotional states. Because we call emotions ‘feelings’, you would always presume someone feels their feelings, but in truth many people struggle to recognise the emotion they are feeling, even though someone witnessing from the outside can see quite clearly that they are stressed.

Jo Grace. Image credit: Jo Grace
Jo Grace. Image credit: Jo Grace

One thing a settle jar can do is give that person a visual representation of their internal state. You witness that they are getting het up and you tell them that you can see it. “I can see you’re getting agitated, like this” you shake the jar to show them a representation of that agitation. You might go on to tell them how you spotted it, giving them clear signs. For example, “I can see your shoulders are raised, your face looks flushed,” is giving them ways to spot it themselves. Remember if you can’t feel your emotions accurately, you may need to learn to recognise them through external ways. If you want someone to do this, you need to habituate them to it as a form of personal care, in the same way that you might habituate someone into cleaning their teeth.

Once you’ve given the visual representation of the emotion, both labelling and explaining it as you do so, then you can give the classic instruction, “You need to calm down.” This isn’t a direction, or a condemnation, it is a statement of empathy. You are recognising that how they are feeling is not pleasant for them and explaining to them what they need.

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Simple words but complex instructions

“Calm down,” is an instruction often given. But when you consider it, it is a horribly abstract one, often given to people not good at abstract thinking, at a point in time when their mind is likely to be engaged in topics more pressing. What are we saying when we say, “Calm down”? We're asking someone to do something: to calm down, but the doing of that something is a 'not doing'. We are actually asking them ‘not’ to do several things: not to speak so loudly, not to move so violently. Our instruction to do is actually an instruction to not do, and we are asking them to perform not a particular thing, but an absence of several things. Although the words “Calm down” are simple, the understanding of them is not.

However, when visually represented by the slowly settling particles in the settle jar, the person you are speaking to has extra support in understanding the instruction, and you are going to give still further support by embodying the calm you demand – yes in fact it is you who needs to calm down!

A Jo Grace settle jar
A Jo Grace settle jar

You place the settle jar where they can see the particles slowly settling, and then you perform calming down, taking a deep breath and breathing it out slowly. The Makaton sign for calm is great here, you lower first one palm to the floor and then the other, you can do this alongside the settling particles, as if you are slowly pushing them down through the water and matching this slow downward motion of the hands and the particles with your slow out breath. 

The jar represents the internal process of calming down, it is your visual reinforcer for a bodily sequence that you teach through repeated demonstration and practice until one day all that person will need to do to calm down is to pick up the jar themselves, shake it and watch the particles settle – but that is the end point in the process not the start!

To learn more about how simple sensory resources can be used to support emotional regulation, you can join me on my Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour Day 28th June Birmingham

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