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Summer fun ideas for challenging Tweenies and Teens

Here are some great hand-eye coordination activities for clients across the lifespan – some are especially good for teens! Try these with tweenies and teens with difficulties with sensory-motor coordination, to get them off devices and outdoors over the summer.

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Neuroscience and Sleep

Submitted by guest blogger Ruth OT

Before I trained to be an occupational therapist, I studied neuroscience to masters by research level. It is so helpful in my work to have that underpinning knowledge of some of the things going on in the brain and how these affect behaviour. However, I don’t miss growing neurons in petri dishes and counting them.
Our kids are not great sleepers, to understate it considerably. We have had more sleep advice than anyone has any business accessing. It’s been variably effective. In the UK, there are several charities who offer sleep advice for children with special needs (Cerebra and Scope to name but 2), alongside advice from our children’s centres and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). They’ve all been helpful, they’ve all prioritised the importance of a good consistent bedtime routine, on minimising distractions from sleep and on knowing your child’s sleep patterns. We have filled in more sleep diaries that you can shake a stick at (incidentally, this is the most effective way to make sure your child actually sleeps I have found! It’s amazing how well they sleep when you’re filling in a sleep diary to prove they never sleep).
I have promised myself I will stop reading sleep advice because I only get frustrated when we still don’t sleep, but here are some things we have found helpful (some nights at least!) and a little bit of the neuroscience of why.

Melatonin
One of our children along with many autistic people I know is taking melatonin at bedtime. The doctor tells us frequently that this is expensive, and we’d prefer to avoid medication as much as we can on general principle, so it’s worth knowing a bit about what melatonin does and how to boost it without medication.
Melatonin is a substance which the brain makes from the neurotransmitter serotonin, mostly in the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a tiny gland right in the middle of the brain and close to the visual centres of the brain. It starts making serotonin into melatonin when the light reduces, stimulating sleep onset. I don’t know whether my kids’ pineal glands are less efficient converters of serotonin to melatonin or whether their brains are less sensitive to the melatonin produced, but I just need some sleep so here are some ways we try to boost melatonin production.

Light and Screens
If melatonin is made when the light dims, it stands to reason that emphasising that light change is important, so we make sure they get lots and lots of daylight when we want them to be awake, and none when we want them to be asleep. This is not always easy in Northern England and involves a lot of getting wet and muddiness. We play outside every day we possibly can. When we can’t, we are lucky enough to have a big conservatory which we use as a playroom, and we have daylight effect lightbulbs in key rooms of the house which we use in daytime then switch to lamps in the evening. We have found that physical activity in the day can help with sleep, but if it’s all indoors such as soft play centres and swimming pools, it’s nothing like as effective as a walk outside no matter how wet the walk may be!
We have a no screens after the evening meal rule when sleep is particularly tough. Focusing visually on an (often bluish) glowing screen will inhibit melatonin production if you’re struggling to sleep, turn the technology off, it really does help.
We have blackout blinds behind blackout curtains and we close the doors of all the rooms that don’t have that every night (actually in our child who takes melatonin’s bedroom, we’ve made wooden boards which fit exactly into the window area over the Velcro blackout blind. Yes, I am serious…).

Serotonin
If melatonin is made from serotonin, it also stands to reason that it’s a good plan to have a lot of serotonin available to be converted. A large proportion of the antidepressants available have their effect by increasing the amount of free serotonin in the brain, this may explain some of why depression can affect sleep patterns. If you think mental health difficulties may be influencing sleep patterns, please talk to your doctor about this. It can be a vicious cycle that poor sleep exacerbates depression and depression then makes sleep more difficult, it is important to break that cycle.

Food
There are certain foods which contain tryptophan which the brain then makes into serotonin. I know some parents who swear by these in evenings, these include cherries, nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey (you know how we all fall asleep after Christmas dinner?), fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs. Just be aware that strong flavours and smells can be very alerting and so be less helpful than you’d think. Also, many of these can be allergens.

Movement
It’s also good to know that serotonin and melatonin levels rise with proprioceptive activity (movement against resistance, which helps the person to understand their own body more clearly), so including (not too vigorous) movement against resistance as part of the bedtime routine can really help- moving against the water in a warm bath, followed by squeezing yourself in a soft towel would be one example, or carrying a good sized box of bedtime stories up the stairs to bed. Movement of the head can also stimulate serotonin release in the brain and help sleep, just avoid spinning and sudden changes in speed or direction as these will counteract the effects.
Doing all of this does not mean you will get a good night’s sleep (I think we got about 2 hours last night!), but it might just improve your chances.

 

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Supporting People with Anxiety, Using Sensory Integration and Other Strategies

Submitted by Guest authour Jane OT

As I read the recent article “14 Phrases Kids Said That Were Code Words for ‘I’m Anxious from The Mighty, It felt familiar – like I had met every one of these responses to anxiety and not just from children.

 “What’s wrong with me?”… “I’m tired.” … “Can’t we stay home?”

“I don’t feel well.”

Anxiety affects so many people and they are not all confident naming and talking about it. Some may know they are anxious but be embarrassed about telling people, for others, it may be that long-term anxiety is new to them and they haven’t really grasped that the physical symptoms are related to their anxiety.

So how does anxiety play out in real life and how can we help?

The elderly lady who has had a reduction in her mobility now feels sick when she goes in the car (but her doctors can’t find anything physically that would cause this), may not understand that her body and brain has become accustomed to less movement and so is less able to integrate vestibular stimulation with other sensory stimulation hence she feels sick now avoids leaving her chair for fear of some as yet unidentified illness but is embarrassed to say she feels scared. Her fears about illness then generate yet more anxiety symptoms e.g. Feeling sick racing heart and more, confirming that she really has got some mystery illness that the doctors are missing, so she avoids leaving her chair whenever she can. This leads to a further loss of integration between her senses as she is not moving much (vestibular) and she is not using her muscles much (proprioception) and will eventually lead to loss of function.

Or that friend who is always tired or busy when you want to go out (there might be other reasons) and cancels at the last minute. But to be honest, as a mother to a lovely but anxious young lady it is the young people who concern me most

My concern for young people is driven adult-cute-face-female-41522by the knowledge that the young brain is primed to learn (Jenson 2015)… And learn it will – either good things or less good things, so if like the elderly lady the young teen avoids activities there is a good chance that these coping strategies will become an ingrained life pattern.

So what can we do to help?

  • First get to know the symptoms of anxiety there are numerous self-help books and Web pages e.g. The NHS Web site, Web MD, mind etc.
  • Second help the young person to choose activities that are likely to reduce anxiety… From a sensory integration perspective, these are likely to be ones that involve heavy muscle work and muscle stretch (proprioception) and ones that make the young person think like Martial arts, dance, rock climbing gymnastics etc. Will be better than just proprioception alone. We do dance and acrobatics.
  • Consider 1 to 1 tuition if they need to gain skills to catch up with their peers… But if you do this it’s good to plan to reintegrate the young person into group lessons… So that they can deal with social anxieties. We went to a group lesson and it was clear my daughter had a lot to learn so we had a year of individual lessons (and still supplement the group lessons with the occasional individual lesson). But then we went to group lessons, it took half a term but now she is enjoying doing acrobatics duets which brings me to my next point.
  • Make sure the young person attends regularly and on time for a good chunk of time…..
    Be prepared for ongoing anxiety and be firm that they go… My daughter frequently tells me on the way home “oh sensory mum you’re right I do feel better.
  • Try to avoid surprises… We have a wall planner for the term and all activities are written on it… And I have noticed my daughter (and I am) much calmer knowing what needs to be done and when.
  • Discuss and consider professional help… Some Ayres’ Sensory Integration trained occupational therapists use other techniques in conjunction with their sensory integrative therapy, others will work alongside mental health professionals and for some people, Ayres’ Sensory Integration therapy will be enough on its own.
  • You may also decide to work through a self-help book and this can be a good option… But if in doubt always consult with your GP or/and any other health professional who is working the young person.

So what about those adults… Its a little different to the young people but listening and understanding or trying to understand is a good first step. Giving them information about sensory integration and mental health issues can also be helpful. Then asking them what they want you to do and staying in touch with them even if it’s difficult. And always remember it’s never too late for someone to get help.

what anxiety loks like

Reference The teenage brain by Frances Evans Jenson. L

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The Teenage Brain and Cannabis

Recent research from Tel Aviv University suggests that smoking cannabis can trigger schizophrenia.

The study provides evidence that in susceptible young people, smoking or using cannabis trigger schizophrenia. Susceptible young people include those for whom there is a familial history of mental illness.

Reference: Hadar Segal-Gavish, Neta Gazit, Yael Barhum, Tali Ben-Zur, Michal Taler, Shay Henry Hornfeld, Irit Gil-Ad, Abraham Weizman, Inna Slutsky, Minae Niwa, Atsushi Kamiya, Akira Sawa, Daniel Offen, Ran Barzilay. BDNF Overexpression Prevents Cognitive Deficit Elicited by Adolescent Cannabis Exposure and Host Susceptibility InteractionHuman Molecular Genetics, 2017; DOI: 10.1093/hmg/ddx139

You can read hear more about cannabis and the adolescent brain here:

 

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The Teenage Brain – Can neuroscience help us unravel the perplexing mystery of those often erratic and unpredictable years?

The teenage brain and the behaviours it can drive in young people can be perplexing and often scary to the parents standing by, watching and supporting. Knowing” what is sensory and what is “just teenage brain” can be tricky to parents of young people with neurological diversity.

Neuroscience is helping us understand why teens can suddenly engage in extreme, rollercoastering unpredictable behaviours that challenge those caring for them.

Here is a lovely youtube explaining some of the neuroscience behind these often turbulent and troubled years.

Tomorrow at 6pm we will be exploring The Teenage Brain and Cannabis