This cheery, bright playroom does much more than entertain children – it offers crucial therapy too, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
IT IS A TYPICAL small business park on the edge of a provincial town. But at the back of this one in Kildare, a brightly coloured shop front stands out in the drab, concrete surroundings.
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Step in the door of Sensational Kids and it appears to be an attractive toy shop. Walk in further, down steps and through a door, and you are in a large room with a definite “wow” factor.
Yellow crash mats line the floor, different kinds of swings hang from ceiling beams, brightly-coloured giant balls and a wooden climbing frame with slide – they all spell fun. And fun it most definitely is, but in a playroom with a difference.
This is a “sensory integration gym”, where every piece of equipment has a clinical purpose, and the adult “playing” with five-year-old Seán this morning is a highly trained paediatric occupational therapist, Patrick Hynes.
“I was determined children should enjoy coming in here; it was not supposed to feel like a clinic,” says Karen Leigh, the woman responsible for this remarkable complex, the only one of its kind in Ireland. It is delivering therapy services to more than 120 children a week from all over the country.
As founder and chief executive, her mission is to make occupational and other therapy services “accessible and affordable to children of all abilities”, from those with specific diagnoses to kids who may just need a little help to get over a particular developmental hump.
The services are “accessible” because there is no waiting list and your child does not have to tick a set of boxes to be considered eligible. “We don’t turn any child away,” she stresses.
The therapies are more “affordable” than going privately because Sensational Kids has a business side, from which all profits go towards subsidising costs for parents.
Personal experience as a parent gave Leigh, who used to work in customer services, the idea for the centre. The way she made it happen is inspirational.
She knew nothing about occupational therapy (OT) until 2005, when a psychologist in the US suggested it for her eldest child, Conor, now aged 10. His fine motor skills were poor and he was not inclined to cross his hands over his midline.
They were in Los Angeles at the time, where Conor was undergoing surgery, having been born without an ear on one side. As they were there for the summer, he was referred to Can Do Kids therapy centre in the city where he started twice-weekly sessions that were recommended for six months – continue the programme at your nearest OT centre when you get home, Leigh was advised.
But Kildare is not California. “There was nothing available locally to me,” says Leigh. The local primary school support scheme did not include OT at the time, she discovered – yet “he went on a waiting list for a service that didn’t exist”.
She was forced to take Conor to a private therapist in Dublin – but at €120 an hour and involving a three-hour round trip each time, it was not sustainable. Realising there was nothing in Ireland like the US centre, she decided to do something about it.
Two years of fundraising followed before Sensational Kids could open in May 2009 with state-of-the-art therapy facilities and one occupational therapist. Since then it has “snowballed”.
It now has four occupational therapists, two psychologists and two speech and language therapists, as well as a reading teacher. They have people from Donegal to Cork travelling to them, as well as many from Dublin. A family even came from Birmingham for an assessment and went away with a home programme for the child.
“Typically, children we would see here are children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, developmental delays and Down syndrome and children who have fallen behind and not settling in school.
“We see a lot of children who don’t have a diagnosis but just need a little bit of help and there is nowhere for them to go,” continues Leigh. “A lot of parents don’t want the tag of a diagnosis and rightly so.”
Many of the children have sensory processing disorders – either they are sensory seekers, who can’t sit still and are constantly in trouble, or children who are under-responsive.
Next to the gym, a smaller sensory room conjures up a very different mood. It is dimly lit, with a bubble tube in one corner and a small white tent in the middle draped with fine netting. Generally children are brought in to calm down and relax, although a box of toys by the wall includes aids for stimulation when required.
Occupational therapists look at children’s ability to do everyday tasks, explains Hynes. “If there is anything impeding that, we intervene.”
They may have difficulty getting dressed, riding a bike, with handwriting. A therapist breaks down the activity into component tasks and finds the area that is causing difficulty – visual processing or sensory processing, muscle tone or fine motor skills, or a combination of these.
“Children know what they are not good at,” says Leigh, “and they don’t like practising what they are not good at.”
“So we sneak it into a game,” says Hynes with a smile. They also do a lot of work on social skills.
Upstairs, a delicious smell wafts from one of the therapy rooms. Occupational therapist Aline Britton is baking biscuits with five-year-old Lucy Keating, watched by her sister Holly (10) – both are on the autistic spectrum, explains their mother Yvonne.
They come here from Drimnagh in Dublin every week, but the girls alternate sessions as it would be too costly otherwise. Lucy was diagnosed a year ago. “we were given a diagnosis but no services,” says Yvonne.
She learned about Sensational Kids through the internet and Lucy has had speech and language therapy here as well as ongoing OT. She is happily chattering away this morning, counting the biscuits as they come out of the oven.
“There are children in every class in the country who would benefit from occupational therapy,” says Leigh. “Because of a lack of awareness, a lot of them go undiagnosed or unhelped and there is really no need for it.
“If somebody feels there is something not quite right with their child or something they need a bit of help with, we can have that child assessed and see what is going on.”
Her own son, she says, is “living proof” that therapy works. Conor achieved everything he wanted through sessions at Sensational Kids – one big challenge was learning to ride a bike – and he is way ahead with language and reading. He just needs the occasional check-in session now.
The centre charges €325 for an occupational therapy or speech and language assessment, which typically costs about €500 privately. An hour of occupational therapy costs €60, compared to the €100 parents would generally have to pay privately.
Money to subsidise the services is generated through the educational toy and book shop, which operates online too. All the toys stocked will aid child development in some way, such as motor skills or hand-eye co-ordination, and are geared to children of all abilities.
Sensational Kids also runs training workshops during the year, which raise additional funds. Last year, a total of €128,000 was ploughed back into reducing the cost of therapies
It has started doing outreach therapy in schools and is finalising plans for extending its speech and language therapy service to a centre in Dublin.
“We have a model that is working and we are looking at how to replicate it somewhere else,” Leigh adds. “People are travelling here from all over the country and they should not have to.”
For more information see sensational kids.ie or tel 045-520900
HAVING FUN: ‘DANNY DOESN’T SEE THIS AS A CLINICAL SETTING, HE SEES THIS AS FUN. I THINK THAT IS JUST AS IMPORTANT’
It was not until Seán Colreavy- Donnelly, now aged six, started primary school that his problems with physical dexterity and interaction with peers were noticed.
“I think he was a bit in shock as he had gone from a room of eight kids into a class of 33,” says his mother Claire, who lives in Kildare town. “Any difficulties and insecurities he had I’d say were kind of exaggerated.”
He has two much older siblings, so “he was very adult oriented and wasn’t very comfortable with the rough and tumble of his peers”. She is very grateful that his teacher suggested she bring Seán to Sensational Kids. He has been coming here for 18 months now and has benefited greatly from OT.
“He was always happy in school, but his confidence was being knocked a lot because there was so much emphasis on fine and gross motor skills and peer interaction in how you learn,” Claire explains. “He never had any academic difficulty.”
She describes the multidisciplinary approach at Sensational Kids as “very holistic” and well integrated with the school and home. “It does not happen in a vacuum.”
For Seán, “it is an intermediary space – it is not the formal school space and it is not the familiar home space – where he is getting the one-to-one and smaller group work as well.” He developed an immediate rapport with his therapist, which she believes is essential.
In a previous attempt at getting help for him, “the relationship wasn’t there,” says Claire. “I think it is the basis of everything they do here. The kids seem to really trust the therapists. If that relationship is not there they cannot come to those challenging programmes and activities.
“He is never going to be a footballer, but he has definitely become much more at ease,” adds Claire, who has not looked for a formal diagnosis for Seán.
“Developmentally, he is not on a par yet, but you can see there has been huge progress. I cannot talk too highly of it; we are so lucky that we are in the area.”
Donal Kennedy and Amanda Roche bring their five-year-old son, Danny, here every week from Lucan, Co Dublin. He was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder at age three and a half.
It was when he left the home environment and went into playschool that staff flagged it the first morning, explains Amanda. While they were devastated, asking themselves why they had not seen it, “we took it on board and very quickly moved forward with it”.
They got Danny privately assessed through Irish Autism Action’s Solas Centre. If they had waited on the public system, “we would probably still be waiting”, remarks Donal.
When they saw Danny being assessed “in a different environment and in a very fair process”, they realised straight away that he had difficulties, not shared by his twin sister. They were told Danny needed occupational therapy and, when researching different services, Amanda heard about Sensational Kids through a parenting website. They started coming here a year ago.
“He absolutely loves coming down,” says Donal. The odd Saturday that it is cancelled is always a big disappointment.
“For a child like Danny, with high-functioning autism there can be a real issue with esteem,” says Amanda. “Danny doesn’t see this as a clinical setting, he sees this as fun. Personally, I think that is just as important.”
He has a new sense of pride. At one session, he completed a paper chain, which involved cutting and gluing and sellotaping.
“He was just ecstatic that he had something to hand mummy – that he could say, ‘I did this, I cut it.’ For other kids it is basic stuff, but for our kids it is a great achievement. It is practical therapy, which they are not even aware is therapy.”
Danny has been accepted into a mainstream national school from September, so therapist Aline Britton is preparing him. He has spent the past year in an “absolutely superb” ASD school in Ballyboden, Dublin, where there were six in a class.
“Danny will always need occupational therapy, but we could not afford to get it weekly unless we came to Sensational Kids,” says Amanda. However, while that was a factor initially, they highly value the centre’s approach.
“There is no compromise on quality, that’s for sure,” says Donal. He finds, as parents, even the few minutes chat with the therapist before and after Danny’s sessions makes all the difference. “On diagnosis, your world is filled with questions and confusion.”
Do they see a difference in Danny at home? “Oh God, yes,” says Donal emphatically. “The gross motor skills have improved markedly. For example he got his first bike there a while back; normally if he physically couldn’t do something first time, second time around he’d walk away.
“We watched him and he got up on the bike in the conservatory and he was having difficulty getting a full circular motion with his legs, but he kept plugging at it. He was cycling around the conservatory and normally he would have walked away.”
They will be using more of the centre’s services because, once he is in mainstream, Danny won’t get any HSE services after six months, Amanda explains.
“The sheer lack of social skills is the bridge to be crossed,” adds Donal. “You have a child with a disability – you have got to equip them for life and Sensational Kids has a huge input into equipping them with those skills.”
The Irish Times – Tuesday, August 9, 2011