A trip to the leisure center that nearly tipped our sensory scales

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A couple of days ago we visited a leisure center in a nearby town, to go swimming. We’ve been there once before, about three months ago, so it wasn’t a completely new environment for Penguin, though still quite unfamiliar. And as usual when we come to places that Penguin’s not yet used to, he was very keen to explore every corner of it as soon as we got through the doors.

Along with a healthy dose of curiosity (on a level above that which killed the proverbial cat) Penguin also has a high need for movement. Running around can be a way to regulate stress, as it works as an outlet for anxiety, as well as offering some proprioceptive input to muscles and joints, which in turn can have a calming effect (linked to the release of substances such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin).

In the entrance hall, we were very happy to discover a Tweenies ride, which we never noticed last time. The Tweenies are very familiar to Penguin, so that worked really well as a kind of anchoring point in the otherwise foreign surroundings. Penguin’s favourite Tweenie seems to be Fizz, due to her high-pitch voice, which provides him with one of his favourite kinds of auditory sensory input (go to c.13:14 into this clip to get an example of what I mean… 🙂 )

After a couple more laps around the entrance area, we went to get changed, and then entered the pool area, which consists of several interlocking pools, some mostly for waterplay (with slides, cascading water features etc.) and some more traditional sections with swimming lanes. Although Penguin generally loves water and swimming, he often becomes a bit anxious at first in these kind of places. I usually let him take the lead, and try not to be too pushy about getting into the water quickly (although I’m pretty keen to, as I love being in the water but don’t really enjoy parading myself in swimwear).

This time, Penguin seemed happy, combined with being a little hesitant but also excited. He went to a set of steps leading down into a shallow area of water, and started going in, but then changed his mind and wandered away from there. He went on to showing interest in a small round pool, which I knew from our previous visit had jucuzzi-jets in it, though they weren’t on at the moment and I didn’t know if they were on some kind of timer or how they were turned on/off. As it was now, the water was nice and calm, just slowly flowing over one edge of the pool, making a small waterfall.

I got in, and with some encouragement, so did Penguin. He checked out the ‘waterfall’ overflow, which he’d enjoyed from an adjacent pool on our last visit. He’s always loved looking at water, and I guess most people can appreciate the joy in watching it’s movement and glittering reflections. Penguin generally craves a lot of visual stimulation, but isn’t too keen on bright artificial lights (and nor am I). One of the best things on this visit to the leisure center was that they had dimmed the lights down in the whole pool area, so it was only lit in soft shades of orange and green, creating a relaxing atmosphere, which was further enhanced by it being unusually quiet for a swimming pool.

So, we were having a pretty chilled time in the jacuzzi-pool… until the jets came on! On our last visit we never used the jacuzzi, and Penguin has never before been in one, and he wasn’t at all prepared for this. But luckily he’s not very easily startled, and his initial reaction to the water suddenly swooshing, splashing and bubbling wildly around us was mostly one of surprise, mixed with slight insecurity. I assured him it was all good, and as the minutes went on he seemed to find it increasingly exciting and fun, moving about, bobbing up and down, and really enjoying the strong jets. It was a great new experience and we were having good fun with it 🙂

I think it would be fair to compare the physical sensory input of being in a jacuzzi to that of roughhousing, so a lot of proprioception. As I mentioned earlier, proprioceptive input generally has a calming effect, but as with all activities that give a lot of sensory stimulation, it can be a fine balance between it being just right versus completely overwhelming. Provide too much, and the sensory cup overflows…Also, if several senses are engaged at once, that can also increase the risk of sensory overload. And in this case, the movement of the water was providing not only proprioceptive but also tactile and some vestibular input, plus visual stimulation as well as auditory, with all the swooshing and swirling. As usual in public swimming pools, there was also that familiar chlorine smell, adding some distinct olfactory stimulation to the sensory mix.

So, we were really enjoying ourselves, but after a little while I could tell that it was probably starting to get a little bit TOO exciting for Penguin. There are subtle signs that I’ve learnt to recognise over the years, and I thought I could see him getting more tense so I suggested to him that it might be time to move on to exploring other parts of the pool area. However, he didn’t seem interested in getting out, and resisted when I tried to prompt him physically to get out of the jacuzzi. So I waited and thought that perhaps the jets would stop soon anyway. They didn’t, and after a while I said more firmly to Penguin “let’s get out now” and I stepped out, held his hand, and he was then suddenly very keen to follow. As soon as we were out of the water, he set off towards a gated exit leading to an adjacent café area. It took a lot of convincing, including some physical force, to steer him away from that gate. It was pretty clear that he’d had enough and wanted to get out, and was in “fight-or-flight” mode. He dashed down towards the exit to the toilets and changing rooms, while I was trying to hold on to him, which wasn’t easy with us both being wet and him being strong and wriggling. I wanted him to stop and be still for a bit, so that I could make it clear to him that if we’d go and get changed now there would be no going back in for more swimming again afterwards. (I think I did that mostly for my own sake if I’m honest, as I love going swimming and had really hoped for another hour or so in the water…)

We whirled around there in a rather uncontrolled fashion, nearly bumping into a few people and unfortunately trodding on some things that a lady had left on the floor, but eventually we made it to the changing rooms. However, with Penguin storming out of the pool area like that, I hadn’t had the chance to bring our towels and clothes etc. So we had to get back out towards the pool area. Penguin completely refused to move in that direction (still in fight-and-flight), so we hade to go through the entrance hall, still wearing just our swimwear, to get hold of our things. Oh well. After having a towel wrapped around his shoulders, Penguin started to calm down, and we could make our way back into the changing rooms, and got changed without a problem. Phew!

On the way out, there was an electronic meter where they asked how you’d enjoyed your visit to the leisure center. It had four different faces to press: A very happy green face, a smiling brighter green one, an orange face with a somewhat disappointed look, and finally an angry-looking red face. When asked how he felt about his visit, Penguin took a little time to choose and then pressed the bright green smiley face 🙂

So, after all, we left with a mostly positive feeling. And I really liked the four faces, as a “check-out-check” of how enjoyable an experience has been. I think I’ll have to put something similar on our iPad, probably as a page in Penguin’s AAC app. Or make a low-tech alternative with laminated pictures. Perhaps both.

Anyway, the word “jacuzzi” has been added to his AAC vocabulary, and I’ve got a feeling that this first experience of one of those won’t be his last. We’ll just have to be more aware of getting out in time 😉

A trip to the leisure center that nearly tipped our sensory scales - Sensational Learning with Penguin #autism #sensory processing

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5 thoughts on “A trip to the leisure center that nearly tipped our sensory scales

  1. Great story, I enjoyed this and felt like I was there! I’ve worked with some children with ASD & I wish I’d had this much insight into their needs. It would’ve been beneficial for all of us! But I’m learning 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m so glad to hear this 😀 And it’s wonderful that you’re open to learning ♥️ All children are individuals but I hope that sharing experiences like this can contribute to an increasing understanding of what being autistic can be like. 🙂x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely! The girl I worked with was 12. She was nonverbal and had not learnt to use the bathroom. She was extremely fixated on a particular singing toy (her parents had bought an entire backup collection of the same toy to avoid meltdowns if one broke) and she was soothed when you cooked, so her mum would often spend her entire weekend cooking! Sometimes the girl would then take the baked goods when mum wasn’t looking and toss them over the balcony into the pool! She had a lot of sensory issues too. I was quite young and didn’t know a lot about ASD then. It was a great learning experience and very humbling to work with the family, to see how different their lives were. I’m so glad you’re writing this blog that gives people a real insight into what it is like for both the people with ASD, and their families. Look forward to future posts! xx

        Liked by 1 person

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