Dublin-based occupational therapist and author Inés Lawlor spoke to us about her enduring fascination with sensory integration (SI) and what inspires her to write her SI books for children.
Currently working with children with mental health difficulties, Inés has studied SI with Sensory Integration Education as well as giving a poster presentation when we hosted ESIC in 2015. Inés has published two illustrated children’s books: ‘Max and Me, a Story about Sensory Processing’ and ‘Dexter and Me, a Story about Motor Coordination’.
Welcome Inés! How did you first become interested in sensory integration?
“I think my interest in sensory integration stems from my long-term interest in how the brain works. Actually, I can trace it back to 1995 during my sixth form work-experience with an OT working in a long-term care facility for people with dementia - this led me to apply to study OT myself!
“As a newly qualified therapist, I worked in the area of stroke rehab - again feeding my interest in the brain and its role in the different aspects of function. Having always wanted to work with children, I was thrilled in 2002 to secure a job in Ireland in an intellectual disability service. The needs of the clients attending the service were so diverse, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed about where to start in terms of my reading and training. I quickly realised that SI training would be a good place to start based on the types of referrals and needs of the service users and, luckily, was funded to attend SI Module 1 in 2003. This was my first step into SI training.
“I remember being ‘blown away’ by the training, furiously scribbling every piece of information down and hanging on every word the trainers said with a strong feeling that this was something that was going to change my OT practice forever. And, indeed, it did. Since then, I struggle to find a client where I don’t use my knowledge of the senses and sensory integration in helping them achieve optimal performance in their activities of daily living. Even though I don’t provide SI therapy in my current work in child and adolescent mental health, sensory-based strategies for emotional and behavioural regulation are a key part of my work.”
Why did you decide to write an SI book for children?
“At the time that I wrote my first book, Max and Me, I felt that the books available for primary-school-aged children focused too much on explaining the difficulties the child had without offering solutions or any positive outcome. I wanted to create a shared vocabulary and understanding between children, teachers and parents that explained sensory processing difficulties without making the child feel that they were to blame.”
Can you tell us a little about your books?
“‘Max and Me’ explains, through the analogy of a modulator, how sensory information is processed in the brain. It tells the story of Max´s first days at school. Each day gets harder for him as he struggles to cope with the noise, lights and activities of a busy school day. Then Max’s mum tells him about his modulator who lives in his brain and has the job of receiving messages from the senses and then deciding the best thing for the body to do. Once he gets to know his modulator and how to work together with him, things start to go better for him.
“It was important for me to set out the neurology, in very simple terms, behind sensory processing that helps explain the behaviour associated with SI difficulties. Understanding the underlying causes helps to remove the stigma, myths and blame around challenging behaviour.”
“The sequel book, ‘Dexter and Me’ focuses on motor coordination and explains how movements are planned in the brain. The story follows Dexter as he struggles during his first school sports day. Eventually, Dexter can’t hold back the tears: that’s when his dad tells him about his discriminator. Using the analogy of the discriminator living in Dexter’s brain, the book explains how movement plans are created from the information received from the senses to help the child with complicated movements like swimming or riding a bicycle.
“I always knew that the illustrations would be crucial in helping to communicate and explain SI to children, teachers and parents. I’m very lucky that my cousin, Blanca Moltó, is a talented illustrator who was able to create simple, engaging illustrations that communicated the different elements involved in sensory integration and processing. It was also really fun to work with her!”
“I used a workbook format for the books to allow children to reflect on the story and, working together with an adult, get to know their own 'modulator'. It means they can be used as a resource by parents, therapists and teachers.”
Where do you get your ideas from for your books?
“I think the idea for both books came more or less at the same time, as I wanted to explain both the difference and overlap between sensory processing and motor coordination difficulties. I began with ‘Max and Me’ because most of the children I was working with had modulation issues but had always intended to produce both at the same time. However, life (ie, three children!) had a different plan so it was four years before I could complete the second book.
“With both books, I wanted to create a simple, visual way of explaining what was happening in the brain during sensory processing and motor coordination difficulties to empower the child to talk about their own needs with a new shared vocabulary (‘Max the modulator’ and ‘Dexter the discriminator’). Personifying the sensory system also allows the child to talk about their modulator/discriminator without feeling to blame. Working in mental health has allowed me to see the impact on children’s self-esteem of children feeling that something is ‘wrong’ with them, so I also wanted to make sure that my books offered a positive, solution-focused message.”
Thanks for talking to us Inés!
You can find out more about Inés’s work and books here: www.mymodulator.com.
Have you got a story about your work or research interests that you’d like to share with us? Get in touch at email@example.com.