This last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop presented by Emma Van der Klift and Norman Kunc. Check out Emma and Norm's work online at The Broadreach Centre and Conversations that Matter (links will open in new windows). Emma and Norm are amazing advocates for disability rights and inclusion. If you ever get a chance to hear them speak or attend a workshop with them, do it!! It was refreshing to listen to their thoroughly pro-neurodiversity approach, and encouraging to hear them tell their stories. The particular workshop I attended was called "Hell bent on helping", and it was a thought provoking look at the dangers of benevolence contrasted with the benefits of collaboration with the disabled person being supported. But, although what I want to tell you about occurred within the context of this workshop, the workshop itself is not what I am going to write about in this post.
The workshop stared at 9.30 in the morning. By 10.00 I knew I was going to have trouble staying engaged for the whole morning session, let alone all day. The room we were in was a sensory nightmare! There was no natural light. The lights were a combination of a set of dim hanging lights that were kind of a weird yellow light and a set of bright lights set into the ceiling that shone a bright white light directly down into your eyes no matter where you were in the room. The room was stuffy, even though air conditioned, and the fans for the air conditioning made a very distracting loud buzzing/whooshing noise that I just could not shut out of my conscious mind. I was seriously having trouble focussing and really needed to be able to move around to release the anxiety I was feeling as a result. I was worried about distracting Emma and Norm as they were presenting, so I just tried to distract myself by tapping my fingers on each other for the rest of the first session.
As soon as the session was over I ducked out to of the room to find a spot with some natural light and a bit of quiet. I found light, but the air conditioning out in the hall and foyer made a different low pitch humming that kind of got into my chest and made me feel restless. I was starting to wonder how I was going to get through the day!
I knew that Emma was likely finding the room as difficult as I was, and would understand my discomfort. With this helping me feel more confident, I decided to do something I'd never done before. I asked Norm and Emma if they would find it distracting if I stood down the back of the room and moved about during the next session as I was finding the environment difficult. Norm figured out how to dim the lights a bit, Emma offered me a space to sit in the one corner of the room that was less bright and they assured me they did not mind at all if I moved about.
The lights dimmed helped a little as I sat down, but after about 10 minutes I was ready to zone out again, so I got up and walked around the back of the room for a while. Once I felt less stressed I moved to a spot where I was between lights so I didn't have any light shining in my eyes and stood while shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Doing this allowed me to focus my attention back on what was being said and I didn't miss any of that session.
In fact, having the freedom to move around the room when I needed to in order to regulate the sensory discomfort I was experiencing allowed me to stay engaged for the whole workshop, something I've not done before in a sensory challenging environment. One simple accommodation changed the whole day for me.
The benefits of having the freedom to move when I needed to extended beyond my participation at the workshop. Because I was able to regulate my sensory system during the day, I also managed the 1 1/2 hour trip home on the train calmly, even though the trip involved a change of train halfway and the train was crowded (I don't love the train at the best of times). Then I was able to attend my evening karate class when I got home. This is a big deal for me. I am a person who usually needs a decent amount of down time after a day out engaging with people I don't know (I don't love meeting new people- it's not that I don't like the people, just that meeting them is hard), in an unfamiliar place (I don't love going new places) and navigating public transport. I hadn't expected to feel up to attending karate class that night. I also hadn't expected that the following day I'd get much done, as I usually would need a quiet day to reset after a day out in unfamiliar surroundings, but I had a productive day which included making 3 phone calls (I don't love phone calls). All these things I managed better than I expected to because of a simple accommodation.
I've been thinking a lot lately about learning environments and the lack of flexibility and accommodations provided for neurodivergent learners. These are the main reasons my Autistic daughter is currently homeschooled- the school environment is such a significant stressor for her that she uses up all her coping for the day during the school hours and has nothing left to live life the rest of the week. Sensory and environmental accommodations are an issue I touched on in the "Inclusion" section of my submission to the current Senate Inquiry, and are a significant barrier to learning for many neurodivergent students.
You might be reading and thinking, "what's the big deal? so you walked around a bit and you felt better...", but it's not that simple. I've spent my whole life very aware of the expectation that I blend in and not inconvenience anyone else. It is what is expected of all of us. There are rules in all social settings. In learning environments the rule is that the learners sit quietly and learn. So, for my whole life I have done that as best I can. I can manage the sit still part, but after a certain amount of time, especially if the room is a sensory challenge, the learning part is more difficult. Once I have disciplined myself to sit still that is what my mind does- it works on sitting still. In an environment with minimal sensory challenge, a bit of doodling on my page is sufficient to keep me focussed on learning. In the past I've managed to find work arounds like borrowing notes from others. In Uni subjects where tutorial classes were optional I never missed one, because without the discussion time in them I would not have been able to recall the information from the lectures in the dimly lit echoey, and noisy lecture halls.
My point is, I have always, without realising it, just coped with the difficulties of navigating sensory challenges without really realising I had them. I made my own work arounds and got on with it, but I did so at great cost to myself. I would lose time that could otherwise have been productive by giving myself long periods of down time for sensory regulation, when I now realise I could have been doing that as I went along. It was easy to do and didn't inconvenience anyone else.
Imagine how many young students could be helped by similar simple accommodations in their learning environments. A bit of moving about, a bit of fidgeting, some natural lighting, fresh air: none of these things are complicated. Why do we insist on small closed spaces and still quiet learners? Think about how many students are currently struggling for want of accommodations that are actually really easy!