Newcastle’s Sensational Thinking Project team held a very special event (Monday 5 June) to celebrate just how far this life-enhancing sensory initiative has come over the past five years and share the multitude of achievements the occupational therapy and wider colleagues have made.
It also provided an opportunity to give thanks to the project’s many supporters including NHS England’s Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, the Great North Children’s Hospital Foundation and Newcastle Hospitals Charity, Newcastle United Football Club players, SHINE, Team Evie and many others who have enabled this unique, hugely successful collaborative effort to go from strength to strength.
Established in 2018, the Sensational Thinking Project’s original aim was to respond to a significant increase in referrals to occupational therapy for children experiencing sensory processing differences which were having a negative impact on how they engaged in everyday activities, their function and development.
In fact, the number of children being referred for an autism assessment has increased by an extraordinary 505% since 2012 – 95% of autistic children will experience sensory processing differences.
Alice Gair, an occupational therapist at the Great North Children’s Hospital explains: “Sensory processing differences are how we take in and make sense of the world around us and interactions. They significantly influence how we are able to do activities of daily living such as brushing our teeth, eating a meal, going to school and interacting with the people around us.
“A simple thing such as coming in for a dentist appointment or to have blood taken can be a huge event for a child and a family with sensory processing differences that other families may take for granted.”
Giving parents a voice
Colleague Cheryl Gascoigne, also an occupational therapist continues: “Our project started reaching out to families in the community and we soon started to see that we were making a huge difference – we were giving parents of children with additional needs a voice when they knew they needed support.
“Yet we knew children with sensory processing differences were also affected in lots of other environments and it was when we received support from NHS England that we began to look at the bigger picture.
She adds “It only takes one negative experience in hospital to make a child not want to come in again so if we can get it right first time then that can have a very positive impact on their long-term health outcomes. To do this we need everyone in hospital to understand what sensory processing differences means and how we can make a difference.”
Watch this video to learn about the Sensational Thinking Project
With the support of the wider occupational therapy team, along with funding received from the Great North Children’s Hospital’s “Bright Ideas Award”, the Sensational Thinking Project was officially launched in 2018 focused on using innovative approaches in different settings including in hospital, community-based clinics, schools and at home.
The project began by ensuring that, along with a comprehensive sensory assessment, all those touching the lives of children with sensory processing differences – parents, carers, practitioners and school staff – would be offered the opportunity to attend tailored sensory awareness sessions delivered by Sensory integration trained occupational therapists.
The training raises awareness and understanding of sensory differences and how changes can be made in daily activities to improve the experience of children. To date supportive resources include:
- Sensational practitioner training sessions giving attendees an introduction into sensory processing and how sensory differences can impact behaviour
- Short videos suggesting tools and sensory equipment
- Bobby’s ‘Top Tips’ posters for a range of settings including calm classrooms
- Sensory boxes
- Bobby’s bite-size introductions to movement breaks
- Bobby’s ‘Big Day Out’ book
In 2021 The Sensational Thinking Project was delighted to receive a national funding award from NHS England which supported the creation of a model for acute paediatric hospitals that fosters and nurtures sensory friendly environments and experiences.
It was decided from the outset that the best way to understand where to focus efforts would be to work in partnership with children, parents, carers and staff to identify areas in need of improvement.
Cheryl Gascoigne is currently leading this exciting project with dedicated time to focus on completing sensory-based environmental assessments in all paediatric areas. “Our occupational therapy team work closely with hospital play specialists and other members of the teams to really understand where we can make improvements.
“We are now seeing the outcomes of the assessments with environmental modifications well underway including calming, natural colours with less visual distractions allowing families, care staff and therapists to engage with children in a meaningful way. A number of sensory safe spaces have begun to emerge across the trust receiving outstanding feedback.”
She adds “Of course it’s also really important that we get feedback from our patients such as Joshua – who has joined us at our celebration event today – to help us make sure we are on the right track.”
Joshua will be helping the team with some videos to help illustrate what it is like to come into hospital when you have sensory processing differences. He produced a short introductory video which was shown at the event – it explained how he feels when he comes into hospital and the emotions it triggers. Everyone agrees that the video is extremely powerful to watch.
Watch Joshua’s video to hear how coming into hospital affects sensory processing
From small beginnings
Cheryl said it was fantastic to be able to take this opportunity to showcase all of the fantastic work that has been achieved despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, and to give thanks to the project’s supporters as well as their hugely supportive management team with a special mention for Rachel Guyll – Deputy Head of Occupational Therapy – who has encouraged the team to use their initiative drive their ambitions forward.
Chief Executive Dame Jackie Daniel says “I am delighted to see our pioneering occupational therapists celebrating the many successes of this wonderful initiative which has already made such a positive impact for so many young people living with sensory differences.
“The team have achieved so much since they sowed the seeds of their innovative ideas five years ago. I know that they will go from strength to strength as they continue to support many more families.”
Ewan Dick, Associate Director of Allied Health Professionals and Therapy Services said: “The Sensational Thinking project has developed significantly over the last few years driven with innovation, passion and enthusiasm by a number of people within our Children’s Occupational Therapy team.
“From small beginnings the team have overcome the challenges of funding and with support of the Great North Children’s Hospital Foundation – part of the Newcastle Hospitals Charity – and NHS England, they have raised awareness, trained and educated hundreds of staff, carers and families.
“They have helped improve our hospital environment to be more sensory friendly, providing sensory support kits and their website and animations have helped children and families prepare and cope with being at hospital. And most importantly they have helped bring Bobby to life, bringing fun and awareness for all!
“There is still much to do and Cheryl, and the Sensational Thinking Project will hopefully be able to continue to support and improve the hospital experience for everyone with learning disabilities, autism, sensory differences and neuro-diversity.”
Environmental improvements to date
Improvements include a revamp of some of the wards’ bathrooms such as Ward 1b where collective feedback from patients, families, carers and staff led to the creation of themed vinyl wall coverings giving an area frequently used a refreshing makeover.
As one young patient said: “I want to have a bathing experience; I don’t just want to have a wash in a very clinical bathroom.”
Ward 2a – a children’s respiratory ward with a long-term ventilation bay offering a step down environment for young patients transferred from paediatric intensive care – has also been given a calming, sensory friendly makeover including a leaf canopy to help diffuse the light from the window.
Occupational therapists run groups throughout the week on the ward including Bobby’s Sensory Explorers, Daisy the dog (Pets as Therapy), and Food Play Friday.
The children’s accident, emergency and assessment unit (Ward 6) is in the process of creating a new calming room for children who can experience sensory overload when unexpectedly visiting the department. Equipment will include an interactive bubble wall, sensory toys, a sequin board, projector and fibre optic ceiling lights.
As one parent said: “My child does not have challenging behaviour when the environment is right for them”.
The need for a sensory room was identified and pursued by Sister Becky George from the Children’s Outpatient Department in 2019 which is now nearing completion.
Additionally, along with Cheryl and Fardeen Choudhury from the patient experience team Becky identified a new pager system for outpatients which is being introduced so that children and young people can move away from the department during long, fragmented appointments and be called back when they are ready to be seen.
Separate breakaway spaces has also been highlighted as an idea and the team are exploring the introduction of quiet, sanctuary pods with a table and chairs, colour light panels, and fibre optic carpet walls with twinkling light effects.
Rachel McConnell, a paediatric physiotherapist on the Children’s Heart Unit (Ward 23) at the Freeman Hospital is carrying out a neurodevelopment project called Cardiac Unit Delivering Developmental Learning Experiences or ‘CUDDLE’ linked in with the Sensational Thinking Project to review the nursery environment to help babies undergoing intensive cardiothoracic procedures with sensory development.
It has undergone a transformation with colours inspired by nature creating a soothing, comforting environment promoting positive experiences such as skin to skin, feeding and cuddles, and during periods of sleep, nappy change, bathing and play.
Over the years the Sensational Thinking project has received generous support from a number of local businesses and teamed up with Team Evie to provide pre-school sensory kits and guides to promote sensory development for high-risk infants during their stay in hospital.
Funding was also received from Newcastle United Football Club’s players to support the publication of “Bobby’s Big Day Out” – a children’s short story book following our Mascot Bobby as he attends The Great North Children’s Hospital for an appointment.
An exciting new feature currently under development will be the creation of an external sensory garden in one of the large courtyards at the RVI supported by The Climate Emergency Fund and Newcastle Hospitals Charity.
To help shape the garden, a competition is being held with prizes for the best entry in three age groups. Whilst initially planned with children in mind, the feedback has been that access to a safe sensory space where people of all ages can explore the sights, smells, textures and sounds can also be of huge benefit to adult patients and staff alike.
We look forward to seeing what else the Sensational Thinking Project has in store. Watch this space!