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Fredericton occupational therapists open first sensory room for children, youth

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They had waitlists almost two years long and a yearning to help them all, so Horizon Health occupational therapists Laura Dooley and Sarah Morrison started dreaming of a way to see more children with sensory processing or mental health needs in a more efficient way.

“There was just an accumulating waitlist for children who needed sensory assessments because of, you know, different diagnoses or sensory processing challenges that can be related to mental health or neurodevelopmental conditions,” Dooley explained. “And I think what we were just trying to find a different way to provide the same level of service and care, but in a way that was more timely because some of those families and children were waiting like an extended period of time.”

Five years later, they’ve opened Horizon Health’s first sensory room, with funding from the Chalmers Foundation.

The room is full of equipment, toys and tools to help children who maybe struggling with anxiety, autism or are undiagnosed but find it hard to be in different environments or perform certain routine actions.

Horizon Health's first sensory room. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)Some items – like weighted blankets, fidget toys, or thick cutlery illustrated with construction equipment — are simple, but they can be really helpful for some children.

“Some kids really seek out tactile input in their hands and so that's how they focus at school,” Dooley said. “And so a lot of us have seen pop-its and just different types of fidgets, it has become trendy but for some specific children it really is a major support for them to be able to focus.”

Dooley and Morrison explain how a black-out tent can help with a child or teen who is really overwhelmed by sensory stimulus – and a trampoline can encourage a child to use their energy, something they can’t always do while in the classroom.

“Everyone is different. Everyone processes the world differently,” said Morrison. “What are their interests, what are their strengths, and how can we kind of build those into their day-to-day activities to make them more happy, more comfortable, more motivated to do the things that they need to do and feel.”

Items in Horizon Health's first sensory room. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)The Chalmers Foundation’s health and wellness program has granted more than $100,000 to fund these types of initiatives. Dooley and Morrison submitted their idea and were granted the funding last year.

Foundation CEO Charles A. Diab said 40 per cent of the applications through that program are mental health-related. Another 40 per cent are associated with food security.

Referrals to the sensory room come from teachers, therapists and family doctors.

The team is hoping they’ll see and assess 100 children a year using the sensory room. Someday, they’re hoping to increase capacity so they can see even more.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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