The Multi-Sensory Experience, Developmental Disabilities and You

The multi-sensory environment is a daily moment to moment dynamic occurrence. We wake up in a naturalistic environment and experience smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and touch everyday. Most of which are not consciously entertained by us unless there is a reason. The intensity or strength of these sensations may or may not be under our control. They are just out there! We wake up to the smell of bacon cooking or coffee perking or the terrible siren noise outside the apartment. We go into the bathroom and get annoyed because the mouthwash brand has been changed, we were not consulted and it burns our
mouth too much. Or our partner has used our razor and the feel is no longer “right” and the towel you go to use has not been washed yet in Downy, so it feels rough and does not have that smell we like. Ok, so you’ll live with it! No big deal! The fact of the matter is on a daily and moment by moment basis this Multi-Sensory Experience affects our motivations, attitudes, emotions, learning and physical activities, our very being, everyday.

Now let’s say you are going away on vacation; think about your destination, pleasant thought, yes? Get on the plane, after going through the security check for one hour. Visualize yourself in the seat and upon take off, a baby starts to cry. You hope this is just because of the take off and the trouble even you feel in your ears. What can you do about it? We are more or less submerged in our environment and all the sensory happenings around us. Some of us can look to our minds to override the discomfort. Just saying we’ll
tune it out is enough and the crying is gone. So, what are our other choices?

1. We can possibly move away from the sensory discomfort/input.
2. We could possibly block it out with ear plugs or an I-pod.
3. We could start to read or play cards or re-focus on a game. Use a distracter.
4. Oops, I forgot we could take medication and sleep through it!

If you are some of our consumers (individuals with developmental disabilities), you may:

1. Run away.
2. Block out the sensory stimulus with humming, covering your ears.
3. Use a distracter of flicking your hands in front of your eyes.
4. Be put on medication to deal with our inappropriate public behavior.

For us the four possibilities were all conscious efforts at problem solving an unpleasant situation. However, with that said there is another process that our bodies utilized and we did not have to give it a thought. It was the unconscious process of inhibition. Our nervous system turns down the volume for us, so we do not have to pay attention to it. It evaluates the sensory input and problem solves for us. Do you hear the humming of the lights, or sound of the air vent in this room? You do now! Do you feel the seat touching your bottom or your leg going to sleep? I bet you just moved! Because, I just drew your attention to it. I brought it back to a conscious level. Our brain is wonderful but it cannot function properly without an intact sensory system. I am not going to go into detail here, but if you are interested look into Sensory Deprivation Studies and into any material on Military Torture. What you will find is either stimulation was removed (too little) or used to overwhelm (too much) the person. In both of these cases the sensory environment played a big role and the end result was a behavior change.

If we go back to the airplane scenario and kick it up a notch, now you have two babies crying and a toddler kicking your seat back and the person next to you constantly bumping into you. The plane has gotten way too cold and there are no more blankets. What do you do now; there is no escape (motivational assessment scale) sound familiar? Your stress level is going up and you have to work twice as hard to stay calm. But, hey you are cognitively intact, no problem! You are now spending much more energy, but it is not a fun environment. All you can do is to think about the vacation reward coming at the end and you keep coping. What do our consumers do in situations like these, on the bus for example, one starts to act out (oh, I’m sorry – not politically correct – have challenging behaviors) and all of a sudden there are two or three because it is “catchy”. Seriously, if the naturalistic environment was all that wonderful none of us would need to go away on vacations or take a “mental health” day to unwind. Our consumers don’t get this choice and community inclusion takes learning coping skills. Learning to cope takes understanding the sensory stimulation we feel and finding conscious ways to control it. The biggest myth we have is that we all will learn in the middle of chaos. When we are away on that vacation of choice, we have time to reflect, re-energize and feel. These vacations are artificial temporary environments or support to help us go back to that wonderful chaotic and natural environment. An artificial environment is created for us, every time we redecorate, plant a garden or setup the dining room for a romantic evening. We know how to use the environment with our senses. We need to teach this sensibility about our senses to our individuals with Developmental Disabilities. This can be done through Multi-Sensory Environments and Behavior Management Techniques.

For more information or a demonstration, contact:
Linda Messbauer, M.A., OTR/L