Building A Sensory Relief Sanctuary

As the saying goes, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” This means, of course, that most of us folks developing, investigating, exploring, and testing programs that heal autism, celiac, or whatever else we’re aiming to resolve have some of these traits ourselves. Of course, in some cases, it may be only the other biological parent (or, in the case of adoption, one or both biological parents) who brought these characteristics to the gene table. In my son’s case, I would venture to say both of his bio-parents (one of these being me) did so.

On the one hand, being a parent with spectrum traits can increase the challenges of the family dynamic. If both parent and child have issues of hyperfocus, sensory processing, and/or rigidity, this can trigger clashes, or “merely” exhaustion in the one responsible for care of self and other.

On the other hand, sharing traits means we can vividly empathize with the child’s experience and share with them what’s worked for us. That’s a good thing!

The “tree” that is me tends to get overwhelmed -in all the ways that everyone does and also in terms of sensory input. Just as most people experience in their own lives, there’s a lot to do in managing myself, parenting, and getting my son and/or I to services -not to mention distributing the book and so on. Also, sometimes the process of healing -whether through diet or EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)- stirs things up and leaves me temporarily discombobulated. On such days, I do very well to remember how I drew comfort pre-diet.

When I birthed my son, it quickly became apparent that he benefited from my experience navigating sensory issues. I ensure he has downtime before and after major events, lots of opportunity for sleep, a supportive diet, minimal stuff, and easy systems for putting things away. Thus, he is not overstimulated as often as he otherwise would be, and requires a full-on sanctuary less often.

When a roommate’s child -not yet on a healthy diet- demonstrated severe sensory sensitivity, I started building him these sanctuaries, too. Our shared place was very small, so I used the laundry room. (The room had two entrances -one connected with our suite, and one connected with the landlord’s. When one day the landlord came downstairs with his heap of matted sheets, he was surprised to find dimmed lighting and a little boy on a soft chair under a blanket! He took it in stride, though, seeming to get it. He had sensory disabilities himself -for all we know, he had a few places of refuge in his own suite!) Upon transitioning into his personalized sensory relief sanctuary, my roommate’s kid was immediately very relieved, then visibly overcome with peace. At age 5, he began requesting these as needed.

Two adults friends have been amazing examples to me in creating emergency self-care spaces. Each of ours looks different, but they have clear overlaps.

Today, I’m going to share with you what works for me, in hopes it will support you to create the one that works for you when you need it.

Step 1 – REMOVE

  • excess light (any typical overhead light and even most lamps; for many people, it is important to block all sources of daylight, too)
  • noise
  • aggravating clothing (too hot, too tight, itchy, items with tags)
  • scents – strong food smells, scented candles (on the other hand, a person might find these or incense or fresh spring air through the window helpful)
  • visual stimulation – in an emergency, removing the first four items will suffice, but if at some point before, during, or after the refuge you can clear away clutter, that is helpful to a lot of people with sensory overload issues, too. Clear the space of excess, have walls free of posters and pictures; remove vases of flowers, stacks of books, etc. (Of course, if the beloved in your care is soothed by a given visual, keep it in place. Simply remove any visual that is not specifically soothing.)

Step 2 – ADD

  • very dim lighting – possibly candles for an adult; for a child, try the amber or lantern setting on a flashlight, a nightlight, or a dimmer bulb in any lamp
  • favourite textures – try light, loose cotton clothes with the tags removed; flannel; synthetic fuzzies
  • preferred temperature – do you need warmth or cold? For different people, different temperatures are soothing. My son is usually most soothed by very cold temperatures.
  • preferred colours – for me, the mostly soothing colour is (oddly) red; for another it may be a “cool” blue or white
  • soft yet grounding furniture – a solid, cushioned dining room chair; a fuzzy blanket draped across a hard chair; a round papasan chair with fuzzy fabric; a mat on the floor; a clear space on carpet
  • weight – heavy wool blankets; an intentionally weighted vest or blanket
  • preferred music, or silence
  • water or herbal tea for drinking – room temperature, cold, warm, or hot
  • a favourite toy, hand squeezie, or any other one item
  • a hand bell for requesting another’s presence as needed

Step 3 – IMMERSE

  • Allow the person to stay in the sanctuary for as long as they like. Do not disturb them with a lot of motion or words. Just let them be. About five minutes in, stop in just to ask quietly and gently, “Is there anything you need?” A child may request a favourite toy or a snack; an adult may request pen and paper. After another half hour or so, ask again. Otherwise, leave them be. Override the urge to coax them out. Their body and spirit will prompt them to emerge from the sanctuary when they feel utterly well again. When creating the sanctuary for someone else, I give the person a hand bell or chime so they can call me over without having to speak or get up. Because they are loving their sanctuary experience, and they know I am going to check in, they use it rarely -only if they are specifically feeling a very strong need for food, water, a favourite stuffie, or a temperature adjustment.

Step 4 – TRANSITION

  • Sensory overload is often a direct result of an ongoing nutritional imbalance, or of temporarily reduced blood sugar levels. While the person is inside the sanctuary, create for them a grounding (protein and fat) meal. Alternatively, setting up the “buffet” strategy presented in GAPS Guide 2nd Edition can work very well. Almost every time, the person exits their sanctuary ready for a good meal -and, due to the stress relief, is now able to digest one very well.

Step 5 – MAINTAIN

  • The closer you can keep your home -or one area in your home- to the Sanctuary status, the faster and easier it will be to access refuge as needed.

Like the five year old boy mentioned earlier, when I realize my need for a sensory relief sanctuary, and spend just 2-3 minutes building one, within moments my joy rises full force and I feel exquisitely well!

Do you build Sensory Relief Sanctuaries for yourself or for a loved one? What works and doesn’t work in your case?

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3 Replies to “Building A Sensory Relief Sanctuary”

  1. This post has me smiling as I ponder the whimsy of perspective. One, unknowing, would think this post was for the “diagnosed”, “special needs”, “insert chosen label here” individual. Yet, the scholars of old would see this as the intelligent, whole, balanced, in-touch, insert chosen label here person.
    Indeed, when I think of the children whose parents fill planners and overbook their children’s lives! The result if oft a ‘grown’ human that cannot be alone for 5 minutes without getting fidgety and bored. They find stimulation in shopping malls and easily bore in nature. They’ve surely been robbed. I call these folks the tourists/souvenier collectors. I prefer to be the traveler.
    Incidentally, you’ve described my place. I use amber bulbs in the bedroom. My walls are filled with soothing (to me) art which is comprised of a couple well placed forest scenes and a living area toned down with horses in sepia. I find that my soothing color changes and throw pillows or a cheap scarf quickly take care of that for me.

    Brightest days,
    Kelly

  2. This has really got me thinking!
    I don’t make sanctuary in the way you’ve described – creating a space with supportive items (or minus non supportive stimuli). But I do some things which provide me with centering and calming. One place and activity that helps me is to garden. I do have some goals with garden so it is “work” but I usually find that working with the soil and being immersed in the sounds of the birds and our chickens is very grounding for me. Being in the garden gets me away from the phone/computer/radio and other interupters. (I don’t use a cell phone). And I never want music or radio on when I’m in the garden. The whole process of gardening seems to provide what you are describing.

    Another thing I do is developmental movement patterns. These are movement patterns that all humans do when they are babies as part of their normal development. What I’ve learned is that when I was a baby my access to crawling and other baby movements was interrupted and I wasn’t allowed to crawl as much as I needed. This interrupted some of the earliest stages of neurological development since our brains develop through engaging fully in these physical movement patterns. As a result of not getting enough of these movements, my brain didn’t develop the ability to filter and process and integrate sensory input. I have a hard time dealing with lots of stimulation, sounds, people energy, lots of activity etc…

    I’ve been working with a movement therapist Bette Lamont. (She mostly works with children with autism and other developmental issues). My “prescription” is to do certain movement patterns and crawling, spinning and rocking. Even at my age this will help to complete the development and help me deal with sensory input. In some ways it has a similar effect as EMDR from my experience of both.
    In case you or any one is interested in this work I’m including a link to Bette Lamont’s site:
    http://movefordevelopment.com/videos/bettelamontlecture/
    By the way, Bette very much knows about the importance of gut healing and the link between gut and brain and she encourages clients to work on their gut health too.

    Baden I really like how you made this idea so clear and easy for other people to use the “recipe” but to fill in what specifics might work best for them.

  3. Kelly: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on modern culture, and how this can impact us. Yes, it makes sense that sensory regulation is not even specific to just diagnosable issues, but simply true for humans in general! Thanks, too, for sharing details of your space! That’s really fulfulling for me to hear about. I hear such a sense of peace and joy in your words. I love hearing that sepia is one of your soothing colours. (Besides red, I am a huge fan of brown, taupe, and similar “earthy” colours.) I, too, use the dimmer bulbs most of every day -the little light above the stove for the entire room, and in my bedroom a dimming floor lamp I transport in every move. Heck, I bring a low-light lamp to a volunteer job I do! Why not feel great in as many places as possible, right?? 🙂

    Gel, I didn’t know you had chickens and the works! Your space sounds beautiful. As I drove to my parents-with-kids-with-disabilities class last night, I thought about what you were saying, about how your garden meets your sensory needs. I was curious about how I have been making mine indoors and remembered my dream of getting away from traffic sounds and onto land. Being with silence and soil (and chickens!) is utterly healing for me. Thanks so much for the info about and link to Bette Lamont’s work! What you say here reminds me a bit of another approach I’ve heard of a few times now -the Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration (MNRI) Method. I’ve heard *great* things about it! I think it’s no coincidence that both my son and I choose to sleep and work on the floor -this facilitates rolling, rocking oneself up, “floor time”, etc, not to mention a simple way to ground for a third of every 24 hours.

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