Sensory modulation and self-harm

At a time when sensory modulation was hitting Australia in a more formalized and structured way, I happened to be working on an acute inpatient unit. It was a fun time to be learning about sensory interventions as it produced lots of questions about how best to use this in practice, how to get staff on board, and what resources to buy in support of this. During this process, there were two main lines of thinking, one being that your sensory profile remains with you for life and doesn’t alter too much, and the other being that your profile is dynamic and can change based on the situation. My thinking was (and still is) with the latter and I believe that my sensory preferences change, not only over time, but also depending on the environment, time of day, and what activity I’m engaging in.

I’ve always found sensory interventions to be a bit trial and error, which I’m okay with and just means having to be patient and creative until finding the most suitable approach. My most memorable moment of this taking place was when a person had been self-harming prior to an acute psychiatric admission. During the hospital stay I introduced the use of “thera-putty” (playdough/Plasticine) to redirect the self-harming behavior. This seemed to work and the person would spend a good hour or so massaging the putty into different shapes. Although I was happy with this outcome as being a solution for the present moment, I wasn’t convinced that it would have a lasting effect. However, about six months later, the same person happened to have another admission, and one of the first things that the person did on admission was approach me and ask for some thera-putty. I was truly amazed by the impact that this basic sensory intervention had and it not only provided the much-needed relief being sought, but it also helped the person to remain in a headspace where they could engage therapeutically with other interventions.

On the topic of sensory items, there’s lots of websites selling sensory items as a “specialist product”, which makes it quite pricey. I’ve actually found using opportunity/second hand shops to buy the same items and they are just as helpful and a lot cheaper. Plus, the idea is to introduce sensory interventions that the person can continue with independently, so sourcing from places such as this is far more realistic than buying expensive items that the average person on a disability allowance would not be able to afford.

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