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So what is a “sensory bank”?
An autism diagnosis often comes with an additional diagnosis of sensory processing disorder. Some aspects of this can be sensory-adversity – shying away from loud noises, bright lights, and big crowds. Other aspects can be sensory-seeking – searching for strong flavors, deep pressure, or other intense experiences. And the same individual can experience both sensory-adverse and sensory-seeking responses.
The sensory bank is the idea that an individual who is sensitive to crowded areas or events, for example, may be able to tolerate a a busy party for a short time IF the person has first filled up their sensory bank. To fill up their sensory bank, individuals need experiences that help to counteract that non-preferred experience – for example, being alone in her room, running through a park or backyard, or maybe even going for a ride in a car with no one else but the driver.
This concept can help you reframe your family’s choices- both large and small. If you know that large gatherings are stressful, and there is a family wedding that MUST be attended, you can spend the days and hours leading up the event making “deposits” in the sensory bank. If there is a school activity that involves a lot of sitting still, consider walking or biking to school that day to make a “deposit” before the day starts.
Here are some other ideas to help your special needs kid maintain a positive balance in the “sensory bank.”
These ideas are ones we have put in place in our home. Please consult with your family’s occupational therapist before implementing anything about which you are uncertain.
Sensory Bank: Sound
If your loved one tends to meltdown in loud places, then have a quiet day planned before and after the event, and offer noise-limiting or noise-canceling headphones to extend the time in the loud location. Headphones can also help in locations with repetitive sounds such as loudly ticking clocks or other triggering sounds.
Sensory Bank: Vision
Dark glasses or pulling up a hood on a sweatshirt can help block out extraneous visual input that can be stressful. This can be done before a trip to a movie theater, circus or county fair – or even during the event. Sometimes it helps to spend time in a quiet, outdoor space before the hectic activity, so as to have a calmer field of vision going into the event.
Sensory Bank: Smell
If your loved one is smell-adverse, then a small, personal fan can help make highly-scented areas more manageable. If the offending scent is natural, such as the barnyard smell at a state fair, then provide opportunities for fresh air when possible. If the scent, however, is Aunt Irma’s overpowering perfume, then also gently ask if she can tone it down when you come to visit. If your loved one has strong scent preferences, then spraying or dipping a scarf in the preferred scent and tying it around his neck can be another tool to consider.
Sensory Bank: Taste
Bring snacks in preferred profiles (crunchy, salty, juicy, etc) to help your special needs loved one cope with potentially challenging environments. This can apply if you will be headed someplace without access to food, such as on a hike or no-frills airplane flight, or if you are certain the food will not work for your family member – ie a pizza party for your dairy-intolerant child.
Sensory Bank: Touch
This is a common one – so thankfully many options exist. Start with tagless clothing, if itchy labels can be a stressor. A weighted blanket or vest can also be helpful. Compression shirts are a great option for something that can be worn both before and during a situation that would potentially deplete the sensory bank. You can also use any number of chewies to help with both touch and taste needs.
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