Covid-19- an opportunity for change?


With Covid-19 sweeping through the world, a giant pause button has been pressed on our otherwise hectic lives. For some, that pause has brought anxiety, fear or even panic. For others sadness, grief or devastation at their change in circumstances or loss of a loved one. But for some, the pause has brought a sense of relief.

For many children with sensory processing difficulties, busy environments such as school, shopping centres, parties, parks, family gathering, etc., were extremely stressful. Children whose senses are overwhelmed by everyday sensations, like the seams on their socks or the washing machine spinning, often find the hustle and busy of ‘normal’ life too much for their sensory systems to cope with. But now we have a new normal.

In Ireland we are still unclear on what school and ‘normal life’ are going to look like in September. Whilst we wait, perhaps there is an opportunity to reflect on the aspects of ‘the new normal’ that may actually work better for children with sensory sensitivities. Maybe there are some things we would like to keep even if we manage to eliminate Covid-19?

I’ve often wondered whether more could be done to adapt the environment to meet the needs of children with sensory sensitivities. We talk about inclusion within western school systems usually to mean helping children with sensory sensitivities manage or cope in mainstream school. Occupational Therapists (like myself!) view a person’s disability or difficulties as a mismatch between the person, the environment and the activity. Our role is, therefore, to find the best match possible by either helping the person develop skills or alternatively adapt the environment or activity to meet the needs of the person. However, with children with sensory sensitivities, it is very rare (if ever, in my experience) that we adapt the school setting to meet their needs – rather we call in the ‘experts’ (usually an OT) to teach the child ways to cope.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know teachers and SNAs work really hard to adapt and individualise the timetable and curriculum to each child. I’m talking about issues related to the whole system, routine and the school building itself. For example, if a person with a physical disability requiring a wheelchair was attending a mainsteam school, it would be imperative to adapt the school building (for example with a ramp, accessible bathroom, etc.) to their needs. The same child might also leave the classroom slightly earlier to avoid the cramped corridor or do shorter days if they tired easily. Similarly, if a child had visual impairment perhaps the school building would translate signs into braille and steps would be highlighted with high visibility strips. For a child with a hearing impairment, the same the emphasis would be on adapting the existing curriculum, building, routine and communication methods to meet their needs.

However, in children with neurodevelopmental conditions such as Autism and ADHD (with sensory sensitivities as part of their condition), quite often the focus (and it certainly has been mine in the past) is on helping the child adapt to the conditions and routine of school rather than vice versa. So here is the opportunity that ‘the new normal’ presents.

From the information we have so far, it seems that the school day or week from September may be somewhat staggered or split. Perhaps there’ll be a mixture of home and school learning. Perhaps break times and entry and exit from the school will be staggered too and assemblies and large gatherings of the whole school may be cancelled. These changes are to facilitate social distancing, of course. However, all these changes are things which to my mind, may (I stress may as every child is different so it might not suit some children at all) make the school environment much less challenging for a child with sensory sensitivities.

We have been thrown into ‘remote working’ and the teachers and SNAs have risen to the challenge through learning and delivering online lessons, assemblies, sports days and even virtual class tours! There is an opportunity to make some real changes to how we adapt ‘school’ not just for children with additional needs, but for all children in every different set of circumstances who struggle to manage the ‘old normal’ way of doing things.

If corridors are too noisy for the child with sensory sensitivities – rather than asking them to wear headphones, then why not stagger the number of children on the corridor? If schoolwork can be accessed online rather than the child having to remember to copy down his homework or be organised enough to remember which books to bring in and out – then why not do this too? If a shorter day/week in school can be facilitated by allowing the child to catch up on work at home…. if written work can be typed and emailed to the teacher….if a child could watch an assembly on their laptop from the classroom or home…then why not allow them to do this too …even when Covid-19 is defeated?*

It has been my experience working with children with sensory sensitivities (usually children with Autism) that it is the sensory aspects of the environment in school (the lighting, noise, touch of lots of people in the corridor, etc.) that challenges their sensory system often resulting in overload (usually a meltdown or anxiety attack) or can even lead to school refusal in some cases. I have certainly seen many exceptionally bright children underachieve academically or drop out altogether, predominantly because they could not tolerate the sensory aspect of the school environment enough to consistently attend school.

Obviously, other factors need to be considered with flexible school routines such as the work arrangements of the parents, the availability of technology, the suitability of the home environment, the social aspects of school that young people may miss out on, etc. But, if the ‘new normal’ becomes more and more normal, these things will need to be considered in every household too.

The expression “Don’t waste a crisis” was apparently used by M Werner in 1976 in referring to ‘a medical crisis that can be used to improve aspects of personality, mental health or lifestlye’. So…perhaps ‘the new normal’ will allow us not just to combat the spiky virus that is attacking our lives but also tackle bigger issues of inclusion for children with sensory sensitivities? I certainly hope so!

(*There are lots more changes that could be done to improve environments in their design, acoustics and layout for children who are sensitive – but that’s for another day’s blog! For now, see Dr Mustafa’s work here.)

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