Children who have sensory processing disorder (SPD) do not always get to enjoy art the way their peers do. Bright lights, movement and noise can be too disturbing, or their physical and vocal reactions to those stimuli might be deemed too disruptive.
Common for children on the autism spectrum, sensory sensitivities can be an overload, or hyper-sensitivity, as described above, or hypo-sensitivity—meaning kids need more stimuli, such as pressure, vibrations, weighted objects and tactile experiences.
Exposure to art has led to success for students academically and socially.
The following arts experiences in Baltimore and Harford counties were designed with sensory needs in mind.
Magical Experiences adapts its performances to reach children with sensory sensitivities emotionally, and We Rock the Spectrum provides sensory arts that can be easily adapted to a child’s comfort level.
Joanne Margolius always felt something was missing from drama therapy. It was focused on making children smile, but it wasn’t offering them the opportunity to process their more difficult emotions.
At age 19, she created something she called emotional stimulation therapy which she later brought to the Magical Experiences Arts Company—a private nonprofit through which she performs a set of 22 rotating plays for special education students in Baltimore.
The concept involves using sensory techniques to connect, often drawing from historical narratives about children who have faced trauma from war or persecution.
“I look for stories where there’s struggle, and I parallel it to the struggles of disability,” she says. It helps students find strength, courage and compassion for the frustration and isolation they’re facing.
“The difference between a traditional theater experience and mine is exactly that sensory aspect,” says Margolius, creator and director of the company. “I have to connect with them in a tactile way.”
Her backdrops are made from beautiful Indian saris. Her costumes are ornate—and students can touch them. She wears lavender oil they can smell.
“I feel that every student should have access to the arts,” she says. “There are so many ways we can reach these students and make them feel that they have something to tell us.”
Margolius performs one-hour shows through long-term residencies at schools including the Baltimore City William S. Baer School public school and The Chimes School, a private school predominantly serving students with autism.
Having longevity with these schools allows her to see long-term growth, having worked with some students from ages 5 to 21.
But sometimes it only takes two to three shows for her to see a change. Students who would curl up in a ball and put their fingers in their ears were reaching out to hold her hand and dancing with her.
“It doesn’t take long to bring them out of their shells,” she says.
We Rock the Spectrum is a franchise of gyms built for children of all abilities to come in and play together comfortably under one roof. In that spirit, Nikki Wooton’s Parent and Me discovery art classes at the Forest Hill location she co-runs with her husband provide an opportunity for children with sensory needs to enjoy art alongside their peers.
Her classes—which occur six weeks at a time—are made to stimulate the senses. For example during February, she offered a Valentine’s Day craft using heart sponges and paint, heart-shaped ice trays to scoop and fill and a sensory bag of googly eyes, pom-poms and conversation hearts.
“Kids are just kids, so I never try to categorize them,” she says. Activities are easily adaptable so that parents can identity what their child can do and not feel singled out.
For example, in her bubble-filled buckets, some students could use tongs to grab the letters inside, while a younger child who had trouble with fine motor skills could use a spoon or measuring cup.
In her music sensory class, some children were having a hard time staying organized in a large group, which led to frustration for parents.
“They were having the feelings that I didn’t want them to have,” she says. “I didn’t want them to feel like they were disrupting. I didn’t want them to feel like their child wasn’t participating.”
Now the series is mostly self-led, so parents can do it on their own time and pair it with free play.
Bonus: We Rock the Spectrum will open a new location in Owings Mills in April. Visit werockthespectrumbaltimore.com for more information.