UAlberta occupational therapy students develop "sensory room" to help people with disabilities

Easter Seals Camp Horizon benefits from UAlberta student clinical placements

Laurie Wang - 06 August 2014

Bragg Creek, AB - We all have that place we like to go to recharge. For the campers at Easter Seals Camp Horizon, this place is a room with squishy toy bears that light up, bubbles to blow, noise makers and a chill-out tent with pillows, glowing stars and multicoloured globes.

"It's nice to have a place to go that's calming. I like the vibrating pillow the best," says Vivian Sykes, 17, who's been attending Camp Horizon since 2002.

Based on sensory processing theory, University of Alberta occupational therapy (OT) students developed this room to help people with various disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorder learn about their sensory needs and how to effectively regulate them. The OTs provide education about how people can use their senses to calm down or alert them and help them get into feeling "just right." Ultimately, Sensory Fun Time is an opportunity for campers to learn about themselves and their sensory needs.

UAlberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine OT students Katie Johnston and Gina Hargreaves started working with Easter Seals Camp Horizon on June 23 as part of their fieldwork placement. Their goal is to enhance the camper experience, and they do this by acting as additional supports to engage campers in different activities, like the high ropes course, the zip-line or the swimming pool.

They are also available as consultants to offer tips about feeding, transfers, self-care and mental health.

"Our position here is to enhance the camp experience and allow campers to explore and learn about themselves in a fun environment. It's not about 'providing treatment to patients,' but rather we are sharing experiences with campers in an ideal setting: one in which campers can just be themselves without worrying about what others might think of them," says Hargreaves, who is in her second year of the MSc Occupational Therapy program at the UAlberta main campus in Edmonton.

"One camper told us that she loved coming to camp because they didn't make her do therapy here, so it's certainly been a shift in mindset from our previous placements," adds Johnston, who is also in her second year, but taking the OT program at the Calgary satellite campus.

Not commonly known to Calgarians, UAlberta has a satellite campus in Calgary, allowing students here to have the opportunity to obtain an MSc in Occupational Therapy and still stay in the city.

"There is a great need for more OTs in Calgary. There are about 540 OTs in Calgary serving a population of 1.2 million, while Edmonton has 832 OTs serving a population of just over 800,000," explains Jutta Hinrichs, supervising OT and clinical education coordinator - Calgary.

Though Johnston and Hargreaves will be done their fieldwork placements at Camp Horizon by Aug. 8, Easter Seals will continue to have other OT students complete fieldwork placements in the future.

"Our campers, counselors and staff love working with the OT students and we look forward to continuing this partnership with the University of Alberta," says Anna Garcia, director of operations, Easter Seals Camp Horizon.

"We've learned through our experience that leisure is an occupation in its own rite and it's important for everyone to include leisure activities in their lives to maintain balance and their health and wellness," says Hargreaves.