Suzanne Little Blogs about Developing Communication Using a Colour Tent

I have worked for many years with children who have quadriplegic cerebral palsy and cerebral visual impairments. Sensory 'clutter' is overload for many of these young people. That is why the single sense colour tent is of value for learning and quality of life. I have used a simple orange tent to create a calm space without clutter.

Simultanagnosia is the inability to see more than one or two things at a time and the use of the tent is a starting point to cut out visual and sensory clutter. It creates a calm space from which to observe a child's visual response. Providing regular tent sessions you can begin to record a child's responses over a period of time. Many children find calmness and begin to use visual awareness often for the first time while in the tent.

It is important to give a young person time to engage at their own pace, without any distraction of objects or people talking to them. This time can enable the child to become aware and to use their visual awareness and attention. Each child is unique and they need this one sense focus time to find what they 'can do', without the distress of sensory overload.

The aim is to enable each child to discover and learn through their sense perceptions and find what they 'can do' and not focus on what they 'can't do'. The tent is a great starting point to begin to observe what a child with disabilities 'can do', because it creates a quiet calm space without any clutter. I have found, that even in a classroom with limited space, the tent environment has provided a single sense stimulus that has brought calmness and empowered visual awareness.

The way I have approached engaging other senses is to begin with the tent time and visual attention on a regular basis. Allowing the child to have time without distractions and to just observe and record their response. By keeping a record of responses it is possible to observe when it is optimal moment to involve other sensory input and at the level that is appropriate for the individual child.

I have found that most of the children I have worked with have responded well to appropriate touch communication prior to entering the tent, this involves being sensitive about entering a child's personal space using a gentle voice to sing their name and your own as an introduction. When a child is calm with this sound, observe if resting your hand on their shoulders to show you are present and connecting with them is possible. If this is accepted with ease then you can repeat this activity each time and when appropriate you can introduce arm and hand massage. Arm and hand massage can come from the touch on the shoulder sensory cue, that you are present with the child. This can be the sensory touch cue for communication. This method can be used prior to the tent and after to keep the sensory awareness. I also used this method to say hello each day and before any tactile exploration of objects etc. It builds upon trust and a connection to sense when and how to involve a child with tactile exploration on their own terms of awareness.

Using one or two words in context is also a starting point for learning sounds and often understanding and maybe using very simple verbal communication. Before tent sessions and when appropriate, I would use shoulder touch, the child's name and my name,said slowly and using a musical tone, whilst emphasising the consonants. I would repeat this same procedure and observe when I could add another part to the activity. I have often introduced the word 'more' but generally after many sessions depending on the child's responses. I have slowly and carefully entered the tent while using the touch and name cue, taken the child from the tent gently and slowly and then introduced 'more'. After using the word a few times, with a time space in between to allow the child to listen and process, I have returned them back into the tent. You have to judge each child's response to this and repeat, repeat, repeat! I have often found that after one or two sessions of the activity, I have waited sometimes up to 10 minutes after saying 'more' and sometimes saying 'more tent, more' before the child has responded with a vocalisation. This is then the beginning of building a touch and auditory communication programme, alongside a visual programme.

I have used slow moving light sources for developing visual location from the visual awareness, to observe side preferences and scanning for the light source. Some teachers using the tents with and without light movement have found the visual awareness has increased when the child is within the generalised, classroom setting.

Movement is another aspect that can be developed from tent work as some children start to reach out to touch the tent fabric, they then continue with this reaching out after 'tent time' to appropriate tactile or shiny reflective objects. In addition to this some children improve their posture by lifting their heads and body position. This incentive to respond visually may have the added bonus of assisting them to develop physical strength and the ability to participate more independently in their learning.

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