Article In Brief:
- The Problem: Have you ever been too tired to function or experienced the sensation of being hangry? When our basic needs are unmet, we cannot perform at our best. This is also true of our nonprofits and without the right tools and understanding the problem can go undiagnosed and unresolved.
- The Context: In our goal-oriented society, we pay scant attention to our sensory needs to our own detriment. But not within the neuro-distinct community from whom we have much to learn about the importance of reversing this approach.
- The Solution: The author, a Broadway performer and founder of an arts nonprofit, explains how understanding the sensory funnel can help nonprofits better take care of their employees and volunteers.
As a Broadway performer and the Founding Director of Kaiser’s Room — a nonprofit that offers arts programming to individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities in NYC — I’ve spent quite a few years marrying my two passions: performing and working with the neuro-distinct community.
Finding the different ways to use acting, improv, and dance to most successfully connect with our participants and students while creating meaningful spaces of acceptance and self-expression has brought me great joy.
Inadvertently, I’ve had the pleasure of distilling my process and approach to relay it to our teaching artists. This process has helped me realize how universal this approach is for considering and communicating with everyone and anyone, not just the neuro-distinct community. In the space of self-identification and acceptance, what could a deeper sensory understanding mean for our efficacy and productivity?
Let’s Talk Sense(s)
We were probably all taught that we have five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. But the more time we spend understanding our bodies, the more we’ve realized that there are many more senses to explore. For example, the vestibular sense is an entire sensory system that works to maintain balance and navigate spatial orientation. An aspect of this collective, known as proprioception, specifically focuses on body position: by sensing “movement, action, and location, [i]t’s present in every muscle you have.”
These two senses can be quite challenged in the body of an individual with a cognitive or developmental disability, as can the regulation of the other five senses. As a result, understanding both senses and the way we regulate them is very important, especially in my line of work.
Some of the work I do with our teaching artists uses improv exercises to take them through a series of sensory simulations. These simulations help our teaching artists better understand what it could feel like to be in the experience of one of our students. In particular, these simulations help our teaching artists realize the importance of regulating all of our senses and, even more specifically, how this regulation must occur before we can begin to accomplish tasks. In essence, these simulations represent my attempt to engage with the idea of the Sensory Funnel.
Intro to the Sensory Funnel
I was introduced to the idea of the Sensory Funnel from a video about a decade ago when I was a playroom friend for the namesake of our organization, Kaiser. I worked as a facilitator in Kaiser’s parent-run Son-Rise program, a form of early childhood intervention for children on the autism spectrum. The work was based on Stanley Greenspan’s Floortime Approach, which focuses on building connection and rapport with your child first to then motivate and incentivize engagement and learning. Both Greenspan’s approach and the Sensory Funnel stress that the behavior of a child on the autism spectrum is not the first thing parents and teachers should address. Rather, parents and teachers must work to make the child feel comfortably oriented (in the community, we often use the term regulated) before they can begin to help the child modify their behavior.
But let’s get deeper into what the Sensory Funnel looks like. For those of us who didn’t click on the video (or did but promptly forgot its contents), here’s my take on the Sensory Funnel. Essentially, the way we take in information can be conceptualized as a funnel with six measurement points [link to image at bottom of this document]. These represent a kind of inverted pyramid, wherein the top-most layer is where we tend to focus the vast amount of our attention. That top-most layer is Executive Function, after which you have the other categories—Social, Emotional, Focus, Awareness, and Sensory—all of which have progressively less and less attention paid to them.
With the vast amount of our attention being focused on the Executive Function, our society and education system tends to operate as goal-oriented. We teach what we want our students to learn, expecting them to grasp specific concepts and retain this information within a time frame we’ve deemed appropriate. In short, we fill the funnel from the top-down, with attention to the sensory aspect of an individual—and particularly, sensory stasis—left as almost an afterthought.
Many believe that this sensory hierarchization is counterproductive for neuro-distinct individuals, who might already be using all of their energy and focus to regulate their sensory systems. Perhaps they are trying to differentiate auditory background from foreground, or they find the sheer variety and intensity of environmental sights or smells overwhelming. They might also be acutely feeling the physical discomfort of in/digestion and/or suffering from lack of sleep as a result of navigating constant stimuli.
When considering all that could be happening inside the body of this individual, it seems ridiculous—and almost cruel—to constantly remind them to “sit still” and expect them to modify their behavior. At that point, you’ve become just another overwhelming sensory stimulus. Essentially, if there isn’t a stopper at the bottom of the funnel, learning will not occur.
CEO of Asperger Experts Danny Raede suggests that instead of discovering or inventing an imaginary stopper for this abstract funnel, why not fill the funnel from the bottom, up? Raede argues we need to check in on the sensory needs first, making sure that they have been met. Is the student well-fed and well-rested? Are they in a space that’s as distraction-free as possible? If you can answer yes to these questions, then it would seem that the basic sensory needs are being met.
Only after all the basic sensory needs are met are you then ready to move to the next level of the funnel, Awareness. Is the student present, or disengaged? Does their space seem organized, or will additional steps have to be taken to ready it for work? Is their gaze fixed and attentive (and not constantly shifting around the room)? Again, continue moving up the funnel once you can answer yes to all of these questions.
Notice that we still have to get through Focus and Emotional before we can get to Social, which would include the student’s ability to interact with others, including the teacher. Only once we answer all of these questions associated with the previous categories can we finally get to Executive Function, i.e., the lesson or activity of the day.
Maybe this seems like a tall order. But when it’s broken down, this is what we all do in order to function through our days. Perhaps for many neuro-typical people, this might be very natural, so natural in fact that it can be forgotten or ignored. But we have to remember that this can be quite difficult for some members of our communities. Also, our regulative ability can change based on any number of internal and external factors.
So, what does this Sensory Funnel mean to you?
Have you ever been too tired to function or experienced the sensation of being hangry? This brings us back to the need to fill this funnel from the bottom-up. A lot of neuro-typical people can identify these needs and fill them when necessary. But what happens when we get stuck in a work vortex and start neglecting some of these needs?
For those of us who work in nonprofits, it can be easy to lose sight of our basic functions and needs when we’re down for the cause and have deadlines. It’s easy to forget about our work/life balance and sustenance when we feel we have to think of the kids and their families, for example.
But there are side effects. Say a nonprofit team has a breakthrough! Everyone excitedly works longer hours and takes fewer meal breaks in an attempt to keep the ball rolling. This is (initially) great, but inevitably there will be a loss of steam and productivity if basic needs are not being met. In fact, if you see your team doing this, it would be a perfect time to collectively check in with the group. Break it down to basics and see if the sensory needs are being met. Then begin to work your way back up the funnel.
At your organization, maybe this looks like a mandatory, outdoor (weather permitting), hour-long break. Or maybe this looks like a scheduled day where a practitioner can be invited in to offer a yoga or improv class—anything just to break-up the day and get back into one’s body or imagination. Maybe in addition to providing coffee, we should also provide distilled water and healthy snacks to help keep blood sugar and energy levels at peak performance. Most importantly, what if we listened to our staff?
This listening should, of course, pay attention to their actual words but also a holistic listening to their demeanor, attitudes, and energy levels. We need to give our staff space where they feel comfortable to express their needs. We must accept them (and their needs) as part of our community and assist them in any way we can in ensuring that their needs are met. This, I believe, is where we can be better community members for ourselves. More than that, this will help us to be fully present with and for the communities we serve.
Stephane Duret, most recently seen in the Tony Award-winning musical KINKY BOOTS on Broadway, began his musical theatre training at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Fl. He then moved to Chicago, Il. and holds a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from The Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. In 2009, he accepted the role of Scout, The Boy Scout in a production called RED KITE: ROUND UP!, a multi-sensory show specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum, and was forever changed. Stephane then moved to NYC in 2011 after performing both locally and abroad and was given another life-altering opportunity: to make a difference in a little boy’s life by joining the playroom of his parent-run Son Rise program. There were many games played, many concerts performed, and many car washes built; through experiencing acceptance, appreciation, affection, and love from this child, Stephane was quickly inspired to use the tools he’d learned from his years of performing to help the autism community at large. With these experiences constantly in mind and by merging his two passions, Stephane is committed and honored to introduce KAISER’S ROOM to the world!
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