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A Sense of Place

Camp helps children with sensory integration issues.

<bt>Two summers ago, Nancy Malina was looking for a camp for her son Ben, but she came up empty-handed. Occupational therapist JoAnn Kennedy worked with children one-on-one but never got to see them in a social setting. The two women combined forces and created SenseAtional Explorers, a nonprofit camp for children with sensory integration issues.

“I needed a camp for my son, and while there are a lot of special-needs camps out there, there were none that specifically targeted his needs,” Malina said. “The response we’ve gotten has been really amazing. It’s shown how much of a need there is for this type of camp.”

Sensory integration (SI), a normal function of the nervous system, organizes everything so that humans can interact with the environment. It helps to filter out what is important and what’s not important and plan a response.

“SI is one of the biggest tasks in childhood,” Kennedy said. “We’re helping children with SI issues and teaching them to cope in a positive and adaptive way. We provide a camp experience for them if they can’t function at a normal neighborhood camp.”

SI is also a treatment technique, a theory that was developed by Jean Ayers, who was an occupational therapist and psychologist.

“SI is a planned and controlled sensory intake that leads to an adaptive response,” Kennedy said. “But you can’t practice an adaptive response. You have to formulate it in real time and have an outcome.”

TO HELP the children with their SI issues, Kennedy, Malina and the team of teachers and volunteers use different strategies to help prepare the nervous system for specific kinds of functions.

“We use the Alert Program, which teaches the kids the analogy that their body is a car engine that has to run at the right speed," Kennedy said. "The color green is where they want to be. Red is they’re feeling angry, and blue is they’re feeling sad. We also use educational Kinesiology and BrainGem, which is a series of exercises and massage therapy.”

Social interaction is an important part of SenseAtional Explorers because children who have SI issues usually have social issues as well.

“Touch-sensitive kids don’t like others touching them," Kennedy said. "Even the lightest sensation can bother them, so they tend to isolate themselves from other children. But then there are kids who push too hard and don’t realize it, and then other children isolate them.”

This summer, SenseAtional Explorers conducted two weeks of camp, the first week running from July 19-23 and the second week from July 26-July 30, both at Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church. Each week has a different group of children.

“I think SI issues get in the way of fully experiencing what a child can experience, and it gets in the way of social interaction, and it’s difficult for them,” Malina said.

Elizabeth Ebel-Nuwayser, whose son Zachary is in SenseAtional Explorers for the second year, said that in a week at camp, he went where she thought he would go in a couple of months.

“The reason we wanted to come back is because we had seen so much value in it, so much benefit from it,” Ebel-Nuwayser said. “A lot of teachers from last year are here this year, and they say he’s a whole new boy, and that’s very gratifying to hear.”

Zach has been working with Kennedy one-on-one once a week since the middle of his preschool year. Kennedy works with him on his fine motor skills and spatial relations.

“At 4, he was barely testing as a 3-year-old. Now his fine motor is caught up, and he’s placing himself in space far better than he ever has,” Ebel-Nuwayser said. “He used to talk too loud, [be] too close and push too hard. When he used to play tag, he was genuinely surprised when he would push someone over.”

Ebel-Nuwayser said that what was looking like hyperactivity in her son was actually him looking for sensory feedback.

“He puts his energy out and looks hyperactive and out of control, but he’s really trying to get an overload of signs to judge where he is,” Ebel-Nuwayser said. “Camp has really modulated his emotional response.”

SI issues are a occupational therapist diagnosis, not a psychological diagnosis. But a lot of the time, SI issues go hand-in-hand with a few things that are not always, but frequently part of the package, such as autism and learning disorders.

“In one week, we see them be able to regulate their level of alertness to meet the needs of the activity at hand. There’s much more social interaction, better posture coordination,” Kennedy said. “Because we look specifically at SI functions and we believe that the SI issues are the root of the problem, we’re able to see improvement in social and language areas as well.”

AT THE END of the week, the children put on a play for their parents to show how they’ve improved their skills. Each week has a different theme.

“Every kid has a part in the play, doing what they’re not good at, so they can show what they’re working to control,” Kennedy said. “For these kids, it’s an effort to stay upright. It’s like drawing letters instead of automatically writing them.”

Between the ages of birth and 5 years, the period of development for children is the most plastic and builds the foundation for later cognitive development. But it’s different for children with SI issues.

“Their body isn’t picking up on stimuli that they need to pick up on,” Malina said. “But all kids could benefit from a more sensory diet, it’s not just kids with SI issues.”

Kennedy and Malina said that the public school system is doing better about integrating SI activities, but it’s not enough.

“Our hope is to take SI into consideration for all preschoolers, so by the time they enter elementary school, their skills in SI can be maximized,” Kennedy said.

Even though SenseAtional Explorers is a nonprofit organization, it’s still able to give scholarships to children whose parents can’t afford the tuition. They get funds from Prosperity Bank, private donations and others who volunteer their time.

“We were able to get Hidden Pond, and Sun and Moon Yoga to come give presentations,” Malina said. “But we rely on the kindness of strangers.”