Creating Islands of Stillness

Stillwater RTF Multi-Sensory roomWe all have our own ways of dealing with stress. Exercise, quiet music, a warm bath, any of these will reduce stress levels, help us get back to normal.

But what if a normal, relaxed state is simply outside your experience? What if there is no "normal"? That's what it's like for children who have suffered extensive physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse. It can also be the case for kids who have Pervasive Developmental Disorder, part of the Autism spectrum disorders.

These are the children that are cared for by Stillwater RTF. Located on a quiet country road between Greene and Chenango Forks, the agency provides comprehensive mental health services to children ages seven to sixteen who experience serious and persistent psychiatric difficulties.

For these children it can be very hard to calm down once they're upset. "Some of these kids who have been so traumatized, they're in constant fight-or-flight mode," says Karen Wright, executive director of the facility. "So, with even small stimuli to their emotions, they'll go into crisis. They're so used to feeling that, they don't know any other way to react."

For children with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), the origin of the problem may be organic, but the outcome is the same: an inability to self-soothe. Children with PDD may have an insensitivity to some physical sensations, especially when upset, placing them at risk for inadvertent injury. Or, they may be oversensitive to touch or other sensations and have difficulty working through situations where they occur.

Either way, the children can't rely on their senses to help them calm down.

But with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation, Stillwater RTF built a Multi-Sensory Environment room that will teach the children to modulate their own emotional reactions by giving them a "safe" place to interact with their senses. Using colors, special lighting, textures, soft music, comforting furniture and objects, the children will learn to use their senses to find a calmer state of being.

"Some of the children have shut off their bodies because of the physical trauma that they've experienced," says Wright. She sees the room as providing a way to help them "reconnect with the physical sensations of touch and smell, that lets them have a kinder approach to their own senses. This is a good way to feel things physically that are safe, to reconnect with their own person and their own bodies."

Because many of the kids come from sometimes-explosive home situations, the staff at the facility also plan to work with the families of the children, Wright said. The end goal: a less stressed child, and parents who learn to interact with their children in a calmer way.

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