developmental disabilities

5 Senses; being present in the moment

Sound, sight, touch, smell, taste.  Our bodies are made so that if one of these senses is compromised, others are more fine tuned and sensitive.

I have some things to say about being present in the moment with all five senses within my own life (to come in a moment).  But, where I want to start is with the people that I work with.  I’ve written before that I am a Recreation Therapist, more precisely, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist.  I work with people with disabilities in care home settings where I visit and provide services on a quarterly basis.  Many of the people I work with are not responsive to activities that others may be, and that’s where I’ve used Sensory Stimulation.  My definition of Sensory Stimulation is: using activities that rely heavily on the five senses to help create responses or emotions; with people that I work with that at times would not otherwise respond.

I have many, many, stories and experiences I can look back on, but one of my favorites happened over 10 years ago.  There was a man who lived in one of the care homes that I had consulted for who was unresponsive to activities I offered, other than giving eye contact, or at times crying.  During one visit, possibly my 30th time working with him, I placed his feet on a vibrating foot pad.  As I put pressure on the foot pad for the vibrating to be activated, he laughed out loud.  Everyone in the room lit up, staff, other clients, we were all excited to hear him laugh.  He continued to laugh off and on for a few moments, and it was an amazing successful experience.

I saw a video on Facebook last week that just made me smile.  Check it out:

I love this video.  Sound, music, a fathers voice and touch, all produced that amazing smile and dancing.

Therapeutic Recreation is about promoting quality of life through recreation.  I have found that Sensory Stimulation both when used in my profession, as well as personally has absolutely promoted quality of life.

I’ve written before about how music is so powerful, it can send you back to a moment in time, bring out emotions at the first sound of a musical chord or beat.

Sound, it’s powerful.  My husband tells the story often about how when our son was born, and I was still in the hospital with him, my husband came home, and the door made a squeak when he closed it.  He said it sounded like a sound our new baby made, and then opened and shut the door over and over again.

Smell is another powerful sense.  I did a workshop on Sensory Stimulation a few years back.  One of the activities was smelling different items that were in unmarked jars and identifying them.  A colleague of mine smelled the peppermint sample, and said that it brought back an instant memory of Christmas time as a child when her mom used to pull her tights up and accidentally pinch her legs in the process when getting ready for a holiday get together.  She was floored because she hadn’t thought of that memory, yet smelling the peppermint promoted it.

The smell of freshly cut grass, it can bring so many back to the sports of their youth, along with the emotions that are attached it it.

Taste is crazy.  I love my food.  A good friend made a salad dressing that I really liked a few years back.  Whenever I had it, there was a familiar feeling that I couldn’t place with a memory.  After many times having that same dressing in my present day, it finally came to me, it was like a salad dressing that was from a restaurant I would eat lunch at during my early 20’s while I worked at a bank job while going to college.  And now each time I have that, I am brought back to those times, all the feelings of my life at that time, including the insecurities and unsureness of what my future would hold.  Crazy stuff.

I don’t have to explain too much about sight.  You can see something that reminds you of someone or something, and the emotions it can provoke can be so raw.

Here’s my tie back into my own need to incorporate all 5 senses more often:

Multitasking is the norm, for myself, as well as about everyone else I know.  The amount of times I am truly ‘in a moment’ rather than thinking of other things, or what I need to do next, it’s too embarrassing of a number to admit.

I gave this story of my real life experience during my workshop on Sensory Stimulation:

I was sitting in my front yard one late afternoon, in a big chair, with a nice glass of wine.  It was one of those rare moments where (as a mom of three kids with a husband, two dogs, three cats, yet no chickens at the time) no one needed anything.  I sat back, sipping my wine, looking up at the sky.  All of a sudden, all I could hear were birds.  Like some crazy call of the wild, Ace Ventura apartment call type bird sounds everywhere.  It was a bit psychedelic for a moment, as I looked and watched birds fly from nearby trees, making conversation as they went.  I had never paused enough to realize how many flippin’ birds were in my front yard, let alone take a moment to listen to them.  As my family members found me for different levels of need, I pointed out the birds and their sounds.  I think they all thought I had officially lost it as I sat looking and listening to the birds that have always been there.  It just took me until that moment to pause and let my senses bring things to my attention.

Another example, running on the treadmill.  It’s awful, no one ever talks about it being fun.  I turn the TV on, pass the time.  The goal is the workout.  I did a run (I don’t call it a race, because that would be hysterical, I don’t race, I go from point A to B, not too fast) in San Francisco that went from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate a few years back.  Same goal, a workout, fun with friends, but a workout no less.  As I looked over to my right, a pelican speared the water and came up with a fish and flew away.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  Same workout, but rather than watching the regurgitated news on TV, I was smelling the sea water, and watching a frickin’ pelican pluck a fish out of the water.  So cool.

I know I need more moments where I take in all that my senses want to give me.  To slow down and truly ‘be in a moment’ like I so want to be more often.  To realize it’s a ‘perfect moment’.

I took a video of this perfect moment from a couple of years ago, because I didn’t want to forget it.  Lake Tahoe, at sunset, my middle daughter hanging on a boogie board in the water, never turning down an invitation to be at the beach.  It was perfect, the sight, the sound, the smell, sipping on a glass of wine, and my feet in the sand.  Here are pictures from that moment:

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I’m hoping to slow down and pay attention to all 5 senses at once for many more ‘perfect moments’ in 2015.


‘R-word’, thank you for the big life moment.

I did not have experience with people with disabilities until I was in college.

No, I take that back, when I was in Girl Scouts in elementary school, we made teddy bears and brought them to a program that served children with severe developmental disabilities.  I was scared to death.  I knew that I was supposed to feel good about my deed, and I think I did, but I was terrified.  I was not prepared (and it is possible that my Girl Scout leaders talked to us and prepared us the best they could), but I was not truly prepared emotionally for that experience in my life at that time.

In college, I dabbled around the circle of helping others in the search for my major.  I had declared my major as Occupational Therapy.  Then I enrolled in Physics.  Not my strongest subject to say the least.  Through my professor telling me I was ‘thinking too hard’ regarding my confusion on the equation requiring the speed of the bug on a record player going the opposite direction than the record, and my good friend having a crying breakdown due to the stress of the class, I found a new major.  My Physics break down friend came to me very excited, telling me about a major called Therapeutic Recreation.  She told me about the opportunities, the exciting courses, and endless possibilities.  I met with the coordinator of the program later that week, and was sold.  Disability awareness and learning about specific types of disabilities was a large focus of my college work.  I learned about person first terminology, putting people first before their disability.  I learned to focus on so much more about a person with a disability’s abilities than the ‘dis’ that unfortunately can define that person in some people’s eyes.  My major changed me.  Using recreation as a therapy to improve the quality of life of people within unlimited populations was amazing.  It changed my outlook, and opened up a whole new world of thinking.

A couple of years back, I sat for the CBEST exam.  I had not taken a test in over 15 years at least.  I studied hard.  Math and English terms and functions that I had not needed to remember in my day to day life.  There was a written portion of the test though.  And of course the subject was not given until you sat down at the computer for your test.  My subject was the all so vague ‘Tell about a moment in time that changed your life’ (or something to that manner).  I instantly knew my moment.

I was still in college, working for a community based recreation program that served adults and children with developmental disabilities.  We had taken a day trip to Santa Cruz Boardwalk.  It was a popular trip where we took a chartered bus, then split up into small groups once we got there.  As we were walking along the sidewalk towards the entrance, a black Camero slowed down as it drove next to us, and the driver yelled out his window ‘Oh great, the f****ing retards are here today!’ and then drove off laughing with his friend riding shotgun as his mullet blew in the breeze of his open car windows.  My insides panicked.  A ridiculously uncomfortable feeling took over my body.  One of the young women that was a participant in my small group looked up at me and said with tears in her eyes ‘was he talking about us?’.  I only had a split second.  Where did I lie?  Which side of the fence was I on?  I had been going through the motions, advocating for people with disabilities, but where did I really lie when it all came down?  This was not some cool guy that yelled at us from his Camero, but what if he had been someone I had wanted to fit in with, where did I lie?  It only took about 1 second in real life time as my feelings bounced around in my head like a pin ball game.  I was with these guys.  I looked down at my participant, and replied to her question as honest and the best I could, “That type of person doesn’t matter.  He’s mean.  We are here to have fun.  We paid for our tickets, now lets go have a blast today.’  She looked me up and down, almost to make sure that I meant what I said and that I wasn’t just pacifying her.  And then she smiled, and we moved on.

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That moment, as little as it may seem reading it, changed my life.  There’s a difference between going through the motions and then actually believing in the motions.  My kids don’t say the R-word.  They know its not ok to say.  I didn’t know that calling someone the R-word was wrong or hurtful to others until I happened to learn about disabilities in college.  Since then, I have taught Disability Awareness workshops for governmental departments, worked in mental health settings, and community settings that serve adults with developmental disabilities.  Mental Retardation is a diagnosis, not an adjective.  And further, that diagnosis has been replaced with Intellectual disability in the DSM V, see below:

‘Intellectual disability is a condition diagnosed before age 18 that includes below-average intellectual function and a lack of skills necessary for daily living.  In the past, the term mental retardation was used to describe this condition. This term is no longer used.’

I’m not writing this to piss anyone off, or to tell people what to do.  This was my experience, and it was big for me.  It has shaped how I raise my kids, which has allowed for them to be comfortable around people with disabilities, hoping they too see their abilities much more than the ‘dis’ that can be focused on.

Recently, my 8 year old daughter and I were walking through the hall of her school.  Out of nowhere she asked ‘hey mom, if someone is in a wheelchair, how do they get upstairs?’  I got to explain to her that the elevator at the school is for that exact purpose, and that in the past when there has been a student in a wheelchair, they have a buddy ride the elevator with them when they go upstairs.  She thought for a minute and said ‘oh.’  I have no idea what goes through an 8 year olds mind, or why some of those thoughts come to surface and said out loud.  I was silently proud though.  With the work I do with people with disabilities, I don’t tend to make a big deal about it.  It’s my work, normal stuff to me and my family.  When things come up, and questions arise, we talk, but I don’t constantly run around preaching advocacy at home.  So I was very proud that she came up with that thought herself.  Wondering out loud about the inclusion of others.

We were at the beach a couple of weeks back, and the visitors center had a beach wheelchair (large wheels which don’t get stuck in the sand) available for use to their visitors.  Up in the mountains over the summer, we saw a specialized mat/carpet laid down from the smooth surface of the wide trail across the rocks and sand to the edge of the river for wheelchair access.  My kids response to these adaptions, as well as many that we see, was ‘cool!’  As we talked about those items, I pointed out to my kids that if I use a wheelchair in my life, I’m still going to want to visit my favorite places such as the beach, and the rivers up in the mountains, and we are so lucky that those adaptive items are in place.  How lucky we are that so many see the value in the inclusion of all people.

Make sure to click on the link below for a great article on the R-Word from one of my favorite Scrubs actors (Dr. Cox!):

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