What the different types of sensory products and experiences are, the benefits of sensory stimulation and where to find great sensory options
An often overlooked but undeniably important aspect of therapy for those who live with disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries and many other conditions, is the stimulation, improvement and re-teaching of sensory integration. This is the connection between sensory input and behaviour, and it can be a powerful healing force when it is concentrated on in a therapeutic context.
For many, their conditions can leave them with extra-sensitive senses or an inability to regulate some sensory stimuli that can quickly become overwhelming, causing an output of distressed or aggressive behaviour. Others might lack verbal communication and find joy, solace and a way to engage others using the sensory world, helping them to recover from injuries and experience pleasure in a sometimes lonely and challenging existence. Often times, both situations can be the case for a single individual. Sensory Processing Disorder is one type of neurological condition that interrupts and misdirects neural pathways to change normal responses to stimuli and can sometimes be the cause of the issues described above. However, many different illnesses and disability can cause changes in sensory interpretation and response.
Specialised therapists and Occupational Therapists can help their clients use sensory products and experiences to improve their cognitive and physical functions, as well as heal and get the best out of their lives. ConnectAbility has immense respect and support for this niche area of therapy that is making waves in the lives of their clients.
What is a sensory product or experience?
Sensory experiences and products are those that stimulate the physical senses, which include: touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. These can range from something as simple as listening to music, to a more complex activity that engages more than one sense – like a walk in the local community garden or attending an Art Program like the one we run at ConnectAbility where touch, smell, sight, and sound are all engaged simultaneously.
There are also some deeper, lesser known sensory systems that can be stimulated that have extreme and potentially negative effects on sufferers when they’re disrupted, which include:
- Tactile System – this belongs to the sense of touch, but is more specific in that is describes textures, temperature, moisture or dryness, and pleasure or pain.
- Vestibular – This is the sensory function that controls balance and motion, as well as some aspects of spatial awareness. It is affected by both auditory processing (sound) and visual development (sight).
- Proprioceptive – this system includes all muscles and joints, and that means it can affect a wide range of bodily functions that can include needing to go to the toilet, knowing when you’re hungry, or gauging whether one is standing on grass or cement without looking.
Sensory input is a normal and mostly intuitive process for most people, and it is often taken for granted by the vast majority of us who don’t suffer either a sensory deficit or the overloading of our senses by outside stimuli. For those that do experience these extremes, it can be a deeply distressing and confusing experience. The use of sensory products and experiences can have incredible benefits for sufferers, and a whole world exists to cater to it.
The benefits of sensory stimulation and the products and experiences
There are a long list of benefits to those in need of extra sensory support, and for these reasons alone, parent or carers of sufferers should make sensory engagement a priority as part of their therapy and care. At ConnectAbility you can talk to your Support Coordinator or one of our team members to discuss local sensory experience options, and get advice on where to access great products. Our team is passionate about exploring sensory-focussed therapy for our clients because it includes, though is not limited to:
- Improving cognitive processing and function
- Helping to support better communication, both verbal and non-verbal
- Increasing concentration, alertness and lucidity
- Encouraging participation and comfort in social situations
- Helps to recall positive memories and past experiences
- Promoting neuroplasticity and neurogenesis – growing new neurons and making more neural pathways (connections)
- Improving sensory processing capabilities
- Desensitising and reduce associated fear for previously over-sensitive senses
- Reducing fear or disorientation in connection to particular stimuli
- Helping to support and enhance learning
- Reducing physical discomfort
- Improving overall individual happiness and support healthy mental states
- Helping to maintain and improve motor control, balance and physical fitness
The above list barely scratches the surface of the potential benefits of including sensory play, activities and products in the lives of our clients. Every client is a special case with unique needs, and as such the types of sensory-based therapies are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on the needs of the individual, appropriate sensory stimuli and experiences are selected to get the very best results for them.
Types of sensory products for adults and children
Because our range of senses is so wide and nuanced, the types of experiences and products that can be considered as sensory aids are endless – but there are definitely some specially created ones that are worth looking into. These include:
- Sensory rooms –A sensory room is a specialised room that is designed with the particular focus of stimulating the senses. This might be achieved through specific lighting, colours, tactile surface, music, objects and smells. Sensory rooms can help adults and children with a variety of sensory issues to learn, engage and most importantly – have fun! A local Newcastle designer specialising in designing sensory spaces, Bliss Cavanagh runs Happy Senses and can help you create a great sensory space in your home or workspace. In Sydney there are options for Sensory Room Hire by some service providers and places to buy sensory room fittings to aid in creating your own space once designed.
- Sensory deprivation tank therapy – these tanks are designed to omit excess sensory information and are used for Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). Sensory deprivation tanks can have many health benefits, especially to those who experience a high degree over sensory overload or overstimulated senses. The tanks block out sound and light, and the temperature of the water and air is the same inside the pod – it is calibrated to be that of the average human body temperature. The water is heavily saturated with salt, which causes the body to float. The overall experience is similar to floating in space, and in time you lose the ability to feel the difference between the water and air. They are known to promote a more relaxed and empty state of mind akin to meditation, which later goes on to improve mental clarity and concentration. Floating in a sensory deprivation tank also promotes muscle relaxation and can lower anxiety, as well as being a welcome break to those suffering from a sensory overload. Newcastle Float Centre is our local option and has recently installed a larger float pool with disabled access that is open rather than inside a pod, catering to those with claustrophobia. Similar facilities can be found in Sydney as well.
- Sensory toys and tools – These include any object or activity that is specifically made to engage the senses, either for learning, healing or pure enjoyment. The types of products that exist are endlessly varied, reflecting the many different ways that the brain can interpret stimuli.
There is often not necessarily a large difference in sensory products for adults and kids – it comes down to the individual. However, some tools and products may be too advanced for children, or too simplistic for adults – consideration of the individuals needs and competencies should be considered when purchasing, and ConnectAbility can provide advice on this to their clients where needed. The following is a list of great websites that supply sensory products to cover the full range of needs and to get you started on some ideas:
- Enabling Devices: https://enablingdevices.com/product-category/sensory/
- National Autism resources: https://www.nationalautismresources.com/calming-products/
- Therapy Shoppe: https://therapyshoppe.com/products/1433-teens-adults-favorite-writing-sensory-therapy-tools
- Harkla’s Ultimate list of Sensory Toys: https://harkla.co/blogs/special-needs/sensory-toys
- Sensory Tools Australia: https://sensorytools.net/pages/sensory-aids-products-toys
- The Therapy Store: https://www.thetherapystore.com.au/product-category/fidget/
- Sensory Connect: https://www.sensoryconnect.com.au/
- Sensory Oasis for Kids: https://www.sensoryoasisforkids.com.au/
- eSpecial Needs: https://www.especialneeds.com/shop/sensory-motor-skill-tools/sensory-room-equipment.html
There are many other everyday activities, products or venues to visit that can be considered enriching sensory experiences, including for the normally abled when it comes to sense stimulation and you should always talk to your Support Coordinator, Registered GP or Occupational Therapist for ideas, inspiration and guidance.
Sensory ideas to consider including in day-to-day life
Coming up with simple ways to include beneficial sensory input in the everyday life of our clients and their carers can be broken down easily into the different sensory groups, and you might be surprised what’s included that you either already do, or could be expanded upon! So much of what is readily available to us can be used to contribute to better sensory outcomes.
- Consider lighting and views from windows – is the lighting too bright or dim, is it the right colour, could you use string or fairy lights in your home? Can you provide access to or improve views from the windows for your loved one or client?
- Use interior wall and surrounding colours to promote different activities – bright colours in areas of activity, and muted colours in areas that should be restful and calm.
- Take the time for food presentation – arranging food in a way that is appealing and has contrasting colours improves enjoyment and stimulation
- Allow attention to personal appearance, through make up, clothing, jewellery, accessories, grooming and anything else that the person expresses interest in.
- Decorate: Hang non-abstract paintings (abstract paintings can be unsettling to some) and photograph of loved ones around, places plants and flowers around living areas, have a movie or television schedule with appropriate material
- Go outside where possible – spend time in gardens and other outdoor locations as much as possible
- Schedule special outings to venues that will engage the sense of sight, like visiting an Aquarium, botanic garden, zoo, or appropriate museum and art exhibitions.
- Playing recorded music in genres the listener enjoys, as well as types they may not have heard before
- Engaging in making music using instruments, percussion, clapping and dancing
- Playing television or movies at a comfortable volume, avoiding loud and invasive commercials
- Attending live music concerts or performances
- Spending time talking and playing verbal games like quizzes
- Massage of hands, head, neck and shoulders, or anywhere else that is appropriate
- Holding hands
- Providing access to experiences like spa baths or variable shower heads
- Providing a variety of tactile experiences in the environment like cushion covers, throws, rugs, table cloths, materials in clothing, bedding choices and anything else the person might touch on a regular basis
- Giving opportunities to physically interact with the world, including activity in the garden, handling food, handling animals like visiting therapy animals or some pets in the home
- Providing access to outside time to feel sunshine, grass and breezes on the skin
- Making exercise and movement a regular part of the day time routine
- Aromatherapy oils, scented lotions, scented candles and bathing toiletries
- Fresh cooking smells like herbs, garlic, citrus, coffee, baking
- Gardens that include scented plants such as herbs and perfumed flowers
- Having fresh perfumed flowers in the home or facility
- Finding perfumes, colognes or aromatherapy oils that are enjoyed and using them on daily items that they choose
- Consider the different kinds of taste senses when preparing food, and try to provide a varied experience by including foods in their diet that are: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury
- Provide a wide array of food options that have different textures like: chewy, crunchy, mushy, juicy, fluffy
- Provide food options that include foods at different temperatures – some foods may be served hot, room temperature, cold or frozen.
- Try to keep introducing them to different and new foods, based on what you already know about their likes and dislikes. Having cultural food nights or colour-themed food nights can help make it fun!
Why you should consider sensory stimulation in daily life
The case for consciously including enhanced sensory experiences in the lives of those we care for, as well as ourselves is very strong. Without enough sensory input of the right kind, most of us would begin to suffer feelings of depression, anxiety and disengagement. No matter the illness or disability suffered by someone, the basic human needs in this area are very similar. We all need to engage our senses to feel alive, and we all sometimes need a reduction in sensory input to relax and unwind.
What we all need to flourish doesn’t change, how we need it is what makes us different. The only thing that differs are the particular needs of each individual – no two people are the same, and sensory needs are a sliding scale.
At ConnectAbility we want to help enrich the lives of our clients and the wonderful people who care for them by helping them to include the right kinds of sensory stimulation in their lives. By learning to see the world through the sensory perspective, everyone involved will benefit – not just the people receiving therapy directly. Our team can help provide sensory experiences to our clients whilst simultaneously teaching them life skills, and providing support and education to their carers. Contact us today to find out how you can boost the daily life of those you care for, and start seeing the benefits today!