Éadaoin Bhreathnach is the Clinical Director of the Sensory Attachment Centre at Ash Cottage in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Éadaoin is a Consultant Occupational Therapist & Attachment Counsellor. She worked for fifteen years in the National Health Service as a clinical practitioner and in senior management. During that period she founded the Irish Sensory Integration Association and later collaborated with colleagues in England and Scotland to establish the Sensory Integration Network UK and Ireland.
In 1990 she set up in private practice to further develop her professional interest in Sensory Integration and Attachment Trauma. Statutory Agencies only referred their most challenging cases (children and adults), who either struggled with or resisted all interventions. She observed they shared common traits such as a heightened and a persistent sense of fear, an over or under reaction to sensory experiences, and difficulty engaging with others. She knew from her Sensory Integration training that regulation of arousal states is imperative before the individual can engage in tasks or with others. Her training in Attachment (DMM) also informed her how individuals are disposed to behave when their core fears are activated. Clinical observations led to a new awareness of how trauma impacts on sensory processing and led to changes in her clinical intervention.
Éadaoin initially worked from home and people regularly commented how it made them feel more at ease. This, along with having to re-examine her clinical practice, became the catalyst for the development of Sensory Attachment Intervention and looking for a property that could provide the key elements of Bowlby’s concept of a secure base; welcoming families and individuals into the home, being hospitable, and having an enriched environment that would entice active participation and exploration.
Ash Cottage was purchased in 1995 and established as a Sensory Attachment Centre. The joyful process of creating special magical environments in the cottage and gardens began and is still ongoing.
Éadaoin noted that when families arrived at the cottage, Carers tended to need a cup of tea or coffee before getting started, whereas as children wanted to go straight into play. Both were accommodated as the regulation of the Carer and the child enables the process of co-regulation. The philosophy at Ash Cottage is we all show mutual respect for each other’s regulating needs.
Éadaoin also noted that those who were hyperactive and aggressive responded well to activities that involved physical effort, whereas withdrawn individuals needed movement to become energized, vocal, and engaged.
The most traumatised individuals presented with fluctuating patterns. Some children and adults had additional sensory processing difficulties which then required a differential diagnosis of whether behaviour was sensory based, attachment based or both. This led to a proposed nosology on sensory-attachment patterns and a SAI model of function, dysfunction, and intervention.
Neuroscientists such as Perry highlight the need to carry out regulating activities little and often through out the day. If the activity is done with the attachment figure it has an even more powerful effect. The application of this is obvious from an Occupational Therapy perspective, regulation should be embedded into activities of daily living in the home and school settings.
Accepting this however involved a radical change from the notion of the child attending therapy once a week and the therapist being the regulator of the child in those sessions. In SAI the Carer is the regulator, whilst still allowing the child to lead the play. The change also involved using equipment in the clinic setting that can be used in home and school settings. All sessions are video taped and there is a separate feedback session with parents and social workers where footage is reviewed and reflected upon.
Éadaoin has gone on to develop training courses for professionals so they can integrate the principles into their own clinical and educational practice. While SAI draws from the latest neuroscientific research and well established models of practice, the next stage of development is research into the integrative elements of SAI. Éadaoin is currently involved in collaborative research with colleagues and academics in the fields of attachment classification, cardiac physiology, occupational therapy and education. She is exploring the relationship between ANS stress patterns, Attachment Patterns and Sensory Processing Patterns with a view to developing new assessment and intervention tools.