Sensory Machines Assist Therapy at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Sensory Machines Assist Therapy at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

By Ken Abramczyk

When children with special needs or sensory processing issues face long hospitalizations and recoveries after surgeries, worry and anxiety can overwhelm parents. Their children may fear the new, unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital and the medical staff there, and the experience can be a challenge. However, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has a unique way to help ease their minds and calm the children down.

Sensory machines, featuring fiber optic lighted strands, a lighted bubble tube and a projector and stereo, assist therapists and parents in nurturing children through their recovery with interaction designed to engage the child’s senses of touch, smell, sight and sound. Both the interaction and sensory play are critical in assisting children through their therapy and recovery, according to Amanda Roberts, childcare specialist in The Zone at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. Roberts hosts sensory playtime sessions every Wednesday in The Zone for the patients, most of them aged 2 to 5 years old, from the inpatient rehabilitation unit. “These patients benefit the most because they are patients with the most significant physical injuries or brain injuries, and they are receiving significant therapy,” she says.

The Zone gives patients “a break” from their hospital beds as they participate in activities involving art, games and video games. “During sensory playtime, we let the little ones take over The Zone. We set up some sensory art activities on smaller toddler tables with Play-Doh and finger painting. we turn on the sensory machine in our Xbox room, so that room transforms into a space of relaxation,” Roberts continues. “Every child learns best when they engage with something. Critical brain development helps build connections of nodes in the brain, which supports cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, language development and problem-solving skills. It helps them experience that important social interaction. It transforms the hospital environment into a fun place. It gives them a different view of the hospital and helps them meet those important therapy goals in a fun, personalized way.”

CHOA Sensory Machine

Technology Meets the Personal Touch

The sensory playtime program began in January 2017 when a child life specialist created developmentally appropriate and therapeutic activities for young patients. Located on the lower level at Scottish Rite, The Zone was created to provide space to allow for physical therapists to work with patients, many of whom are recovering from the brain or other injuries and often are hospitalized at the Children’s Scottish Rite location for three to five weeks. Typically, they visit The Zone once a week. According to Roberts, “When they arrive for their first visit, they may not be able to make eye contact with us and require more work with their therapist to participate in activities. In a couple of weeks, they may be able to tell us their name, verbalize what activities they want to do and take more of a lead. They may be able to walk around the sensory machine on the playmat or do the art activity by themselves without the hand-over-hand help from the therapist.”

Therapists work directly with the children on the machine, and parents interact with them as well. The machine features fiber optic lighted strands that are synced through an interactive switch with a soft-sided multi-colored cube. The patient can toss the cube, and when it lands, the strands light up, matching the color of the top of the cube. The weighted fiber optic strands go across the patients’ lap, and therapists work with patients on their movement and even verbalizing the colors they see. The cube can be synced with the fiber optics, the bubble tube or both simultaneously.

Impressive Results

Sensory play on the machine is critical to patients’ recovery and development, Roberts says. With the assistance of therapists, children work with the machines to ultimately get into wheelchairs, learn to walk again or crawl around on the play mats. Additionally, occupational therapists, working on fine motor skills, explore different textures with the children, who can press buttons and play music. Speech pathologists say specific words or sounds to develop speech. A recreational therapist may have socialization goals in mind, helping the children relate to and communicate with other patients; in fact, the sensory machine assists in developing socialization and communication skills through the child’s senses.

“As the projector shows different pictures, can talk through what they see on the machine,” Roberts says. “The stereo plays music, so we can play a CD and they can sing.” A diffuser also emits smells of various scented oils for patients. Overall, she adds, “The sensory machines make things a little less scary and less intimidating for them, especially with this age range, which is important. And at the end of it, it’s awesome to see when accomplish a lot by themselves. You can see the progression over time, and that’s pretty powerful.”

Parents are touched by what Roberts calls the “overwhelmingly amazing” care patients receive from therapists on the rehab floor. “When they come to The Zone, they see that they are in a totally different environment away from the floor, and they have an escape,” she says. “Parents are so grateful for it and so appreciative.”

Today, children are assisted with two sensory machines at the Scottish Rite location before, during or after procedures or medical routines, ranging from placing IVs to MRI scans, and they help them cope by changing the stimuli in the room to create a more relaxing environment. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston has three machines.

“Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s mission is the make kids better today and healthier tomorrow, so these machines do such a great job going above and beyond that,” Roberts concludes. “We give specialized care to patients and families through these machines in different ways. We see their needs and use these machines as a tool to help reach their goals, to make them healthier and better to play. That’s what makes it special. These kids can relate and learn while they are in the hospital and be more comfortable.”

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