The tagline on my website is “With the right knowledge and a little creativity inexpensive items can become effective tools for inclusion”. I wonder if perhaps there should be a reflection of this, that without the right knowledge it does not matter how much you spend on amazing sensory resources they are unlikely to have much effect.
A good parallel to draw would be with mathematics, if we bought oodles of gorgeous maths resources and handed them to children how much would they learn? It’s likely that they would learn a bit. Perhaps if we had a bit of knowledge as we chose the resources, and the resources were especially well chosen, they’d learn a bit more. But ultimately there would be a limit on the understanding they could develop simply by being handed objects.
And yet this is often what happens for children who have been identified as having sensory needs. Gorgeous sensory resources are purchased from glossy catalogues, perhaps they are identified in these catalogues as being for children with learning disabilities, or for autistic children, so we know we have bought the right stuff. The advertising promises that the resource will help the child calm down. We give it to the child. They like it. But a week down the line, two weeks down the line, could we really say it made a difference.
In my work I constantly challenge people to reflect and question the given knowledge around them. So, let’s do that here. With just one simple sensory resource. Let’s explore how much there is to know about something so apparently simple.
My resource of choice for this article is the settle jar. You will have seen these in one form or another, like an old-fashioned snow globe these jars are full of glittering particles that swirl around when agitated and then gradually settle to the bottom. They are beautiful!
We buy one. We pay a bit extra for a particularly beautiful one. We give it to the child. They shake it and pause to watch the particles settle. Is that the calm we were sold?
For starters if we model behaviour the effect will be more pronounced. Come alongside the child. Fix your gaze on the particles. Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly steadily release it through your mouth. You may want to prompt the child to copy you but often there is no need. Our bodies are designed to fall into sync with the bodies of those around us, so you being calm will support someone who is trying to be calm. (For an insight into an opposite approach watch fly on the wall ‘documentaries’ following traffic police to witness very excited police officers yelling CALM DOWN at very agitated suspects – I’m not sure there is anything less calming!)
Repeat the breath cycle seven times. Aim to be so calm yourself that the child cannot help but be overwhelmed by the calmness you are exuding.
This alone can make a big difference in many settings, but there is more we can consider. For example: Why was it in the catalogue in the section ‘toys for autistics’ after all what is so autistic about glitter in a jar?
Well perhaps it is a reference to the heightened visual processing many autistic people experience, perhaps the autistic child is better able to perceive the glitter? But surely that wouldn’t merit placing it in this section. I wonder what would happen if you rang up the catalogue producers? My guess would be they say that in their experience these products get used with children who are autistic. That’s a bit of a loop isn’t it? They’re sold to autistics, so they get used by autistics.
But! There is a reason why resources like this can be especially pertinent to autistic children, and indeed to other neurodivergent people. And that is that often people who are diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition, for example autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, often have problems with their executive functioning and with their interoception. Interoception is your ability to perceive your internal sensations. And it is these internal sensations that inform us of how we are feeling. If I know I am feeling stressed I can walk away from the situation that is causing me to feel stressed and avoid conflict. If I am getting stressed but I do not know I am getting stressed I am likely to remain in the situation and stumble into that conflict.
A simple settle jar can be a great way to help someone externalise and habituate their emotional regulation. The need to externalise and habituate coping strategies is something I talk about in greater detail in my online course Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour. But in essence if you cannot do it instinctually internally, as is likely for people who face difficulties with their executive function and their interoception then you have to learn how to do it externally (externalise it) and you have to remember to actually do it (habituate)! This often gets likened to driving a car with a faulty fuel gauge. If you drive a car with a working fuel gauge you are unlikely to run out of fuel as you’ll notice and fill up when the gauge indicates you’re running low. However, if the fuel gauge is not working in order to avoid running out of fuel you’ll develop strategies such as counting how many miles you’ve driven or trying to remember to use a dipstick in the fuel tank before you set off. The better you get at applying these strategies the less likely you are to run out of fuel.
Here is how I would use a settle jar to support a child to regulate their emotions and feel calm:
I would show them the jar at a point in time when they are able to focus and engage and would link it to emotions. “When you get angry you feel all agitated inside” I would show the feeling of anger and frustration on my face and shake the jar. “And you want to calm down.” I would place the jar on the desk breathing out a big breath as I did so. Incidentally the linking of the downward motion of the particles to the instruction to calm down can be helpful to autistic children who are more prone than others to taking language literally (why is calm down? Why isn’t it in another direction? Calm left, calm diagonally, calm up?) I would complete some cycles of calm breathing (in through the nose for a count of 3 or 4, out through the mouth for a count of 5 or 6). If the child understood Makaton, I would partner this with the sign for calm which is beautifully reflective of the process and involves the signer placing their hands in front of their body with their palms facing down, one at chest height one at hip height, and then rotating them in a downward motion. So, it is as if the one at chest height presses down until it is at hip height and the one at hip height is lifted to become the one at chest height.
Ongoing I would make reference to the jar as I informed the child of their emotional landscape. It can seem counter intuitive to tell someone how they are feeling, but many children are not aware of their emotions until they are super big. So, I might make a point when I see the child sitting reading a book of saying “I can see you are really calm and still, like the settle jar is calm and still” and indicating the undisturbed jar. On another occasion when the child is becoming agitated, I might tell them “I can see you are getting a bit upset and annoyed” and shake the jar to draw the parallel between their internal state and the external representation of that in the jar. I might also tell them how I knew what they were feeling. “I knew you were calm because you were still, your breathing was slow and deep, your shoulders were dropped” Letting them know the external markers you used to understand their emotional landscape gives them the option of using them too if their internal sensing isn’t working too well (if their fuel gauge is playing up).
Moving forwards, I might offer the child the jar at moments when they needed to calm down. Or I might ask them to tell me how they feel by manipulating the jar to indicate their emotional state.
Ultimately what I would hope to gift the child in doing this is a way out of distress. So that when they felt the unpleasant sensation of anger, they could go to the jar, shake it and take a pause to watch the glitter settle, breathing deeply as they did so, and reach that place of calm where a resolution to whatever the problem was might be easier to get to. It’s a skill many adults could use too.
I might also find that the child is able to use the jar to express their emotion to me. Where before rage might have been expressed through behaviour, if they can come to me and shake the jar hard and hand it to me, that can be extraordinarily powerful. Then that simple jar becomes a way of them saying “please help me”.
With the right knowledge and a little creativity inexpensive items can become effective sensory tools for inclusion!
To make your own settle jar select a container with a watertight lid. Depending on who you are sharing this resource with you may opt to choose plastic over glass, and to superglue the lid closed rather than just screwing it on tight. Add a few tablespoons of clear glue to the jar and fill with warm water. The glue thickens the water so that your particles do not fall too rapidly, and the warmth of the water will help to mix the two together. Add in some glittery particles. Fix the lid in place. Shake and away you go.
Tip: Use glitter glue tubes, squeezing one or two into a jar load of water gives you both the clear glue and the glittery particles in one fell swoop.
You can find Joanna on Facebook , Twitter and Linkedin where you can ask questions about your own situation. Joanna also has a website www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk where she is currently curating free resources for lockdown.