Issue Seven, Autumn 2018
Words by Hannah Armstrong
Photographs by Georgia Ramm
Éadaoin Bhreathnach is the founder and Clinical Director of the Sensory Attachment Centre at Ash Cottage, County Down. The Centre provides treatment facilities for children who have experienced trauma. Ash Cottage also provides a nurturing environment for professionals who attend training courses on her model Sensory Attachment Intervention. Here she talks to FRECKLE about her work and the importance of incorporating small, nurturing acts into our everyday lives.
Arriving at Ash Cottage there is an immediate sense of welcome, safety and comfort. “Unlike clinics and hospitals where people arrive into a waiting room, Ash Cottage welcomes people into the heart of the home,” Éadaoin explains. “The first thing that Caregivers or Professionals want on arrival is usually a cup of tea, so the kettle’s always on.”
While the kettle boils on the range, Éadaoin explains why a cup of tea on arrival is more than just a habit. We instinctively do things to regulate ourselves whether it is to achieve a calm or an alert state. Because each person processes information from the senses differently, we have different ways of regulating our nervous system. It’s a question of what feels just right for you and the state you want to achieve.
Ash Cottage provides a place for children and adults to identify their regulatory needs and learn how to self-regulate, whilst also accommodating the needs of others.
“Adults (Parents & Professionals) are the caregivers, and in order to best care for children, they need to be regulated themselves,” Éadaoin explains children usually seek out movement after sitting still for the duration of a car journey. Éadaoin leads us to the play room, an open space filled with swings, trapeze bars, a huge inflatable pillow and exercise balls. “We don’t tell the child what will work for them. Instead, we watch their behaviour and it gives us clues as to how they are processing sensory information,” she explains “Children are naturally drawn to activities that regulate them.” Children who are withdrawn and quiet tend towards fast movement with minimal effort - the fast movement lifts their emotions and they then find it easier to express themselves. Children who are in an agitated aggression states go for activities that requires physical resistance and effort such as climbing and hanging. This helps calm them down. Crawling through tunnels also helps their behaviour to become organized.
“People who are stressed will often say they don’t have the time or the money to take care of themselves, but I look at regulation in terms of embedding it into our daily life. If we do that, the brain learns a new way of responding to stress. To shift our patterns, the action must be repeated throughout the day, every day, rather than once a week.” An example of this is washing our hands - a simple act that we do throughout the day without much thought.
“If you’re stressed you tend to wash and dry your hands very quickly, which increases stress levels. Instead, take your time. Choose a soap that you like - consider the texture, colour and smell. Run your hands under the water and lather with soap. Wash your hands slowly, massaging them. Take in the smell of the soap and the feel of massaging your hands. Once you rinse the soap off, take a blob of salt scrub (made of carrier oil, cooking salt (soft) or coarse sea salt, and a few drops of essential oil). Rub the scrub into your hands. When you rinse your hands again, the salt will be washed away and you’ll be left with a soft film of oil on your skin. Finally slowly dry your hands dry using deep pressure touch. The aromatherapy oil continues to regulate you for some time after.”
Another way to bring a sense of calm into every day life is to have items in your environment that trigger positive memories. Éadaoin shows us a simple scene made of driftwood and stones in the bathroom. “When I first met my son’s in-laws, we walked on the beach in Ballycastle. I spotted the driftwood and I picked it up, becoming conscious of the sensations and emotions that I was experiencing at the time. Now everything time I see this it evokes a lovely memory of the two families coming together for the first time.”
In the dining room, which houses a table large enough to seat twelve, Éadaoin describes the regulating properties of food. Sweet and salty food, like popcorn and home-made hot chocolate, bring comfort. Citrus has an alerting effect, so eating orange segments can helps us stay focused when working. Spicy food brings us into the present moment because it demands full attention given to the heat on the tongue - think how some of us seek to have hot curries at the end of a busy week, to take our mind off work. If we’re agitated or irritated, crunchy food which offers resistance has a calming down effect. Crisps wont’ do it, we tend to eat crisps quickly, biting into thick carrot sticks works. If you’re angry, chewy food is best, because it requires even more physical effort.
Outside, there is a secret garden. Hidden behind a tall wall lined with honeysuckle, there is a door. Stepping through the door, visitors cross a threshold into a magical space. The garden has been designed by Éadaoin and her husband Ray to create a series of regulating spaces. Held high in a tree is a boat, and resting on the boat, is a gangplank. To reach the boat, children and adults have to climb carefully using their hands and feet, which requires motor organisation and concentration. Hidden amongst the bushes is a fairy house. There is also a fairy garden near the beach area, which is accessed via a hump back bridge. When set the task of finding fairies, children look carefully for signs. Getting them to focus and notice details stops their hypervigilant behaviour of looking out for danger, they are look out fairies and fairy objects instead.
'Marty's Ark' was designed and built by Martin Carter at Lawrence Street Workshops and funded by The Edward Starr Trust
A pond and kayak offers the opportunity to float - a sensation first experienced in the womb, and indeed the shape of the pond is the shape of the womb. For children who experienced trauma whilst in the womb, this gives an opportunity for new, positive experience in which the child feels safe and can interact with their caregiver. Next to the pond, a willow structure gives children the experience of gravity pull. They find they are pulled down towards the left (which represents maternal space) and out into the garden.
'Seasons' floor designed and painted by Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell
In the corner of the garden, almost hidden from view, is a Summer Beach house. The floor is painted to represent the seasons; ceramic butterflies on the ceiling tell a story of what’s broken being made whole again. There are bowls of smooth blue stones and ancient volcanic rock. Everything can be picked up and held in the hands. Everyone who visits the garden is able to find what naturally appeals to them. “You can’t eradicate stress from your life, but you can interrupt it,” says Éadaoin.“Interrupting stress with a nurturing act means that stress doesn’t become overwhelming, and that’s the trick.”