You may have spotted the the very colourful and cuddly knitted chooks that are popping up in classrooms and cafes around the Bellingen Shire, or even noticed the chirpy knitters responsible for said chooks. These chooks are fun but also therapeutic and are making an enormous difference in the lives of many Shire residents. We interviewed Chantal Lennox, who is working tirelessly as an advocate for those in our community with ‘sensory processing challenges’, to discover more about the chooks and her grassroots campaign for building a ‘sensory friendly community’.
What do you mean when you talk about ‘sensory processing challenges’?
People with ‘sensory processing challenges’ (such as comes with anxiety, Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity), do not always have the sensory filters to moderate their environment. Through Occupational Therapy we learnt that there are many simple tools and strategies we can use to help compensate for this. Every person‘s ‘sensory profile’ is unique to them and can change throughout the day, and over longer periods of time.
You have been responsible for setting up ‘sensory friendly spaces’ across the Shire. Can you explain what these are and why they are so needed?
A ‘sensory friendly space’ is where a person has a better chance of self-regulating their senses and participating in community life comfortably; a better quality of experience which then allows them to be out in the community for longer periods of time. A place where common sensory difficulties have been thought about and moderated (eg no fluorescent lighting) and there are sensory tools available to help self-regulate. With ‘sensory friendly spaces’, we aim to address common sensory
challenges experienced by many people, such as busy and noisy community environments, light sensitivity, or difficulty sitting still. Besides the tools in our ‘CalmKit’, (that have been recommended in consultation with a local Occupational Therapist, Marg Hopper from AwesomeKidsOT), we can look at individual locations, or situations, and make further recommendations customised to suit the particular location or person. We might suggest where to locate the kit, or some supplementary environmental adjustments that could make a designated calm space within a location.
You set up a local group- ‘It Takes a Village’. What was your goal with this?
For individuals with ‘sensory processing challenges’ to have more accessible community spaces through CalmKit and a campaign of creating awareness, understanding and acceptance of the significant sensory processing difficulty experienced by individuals and their families.
Has your goal been realised?
There has been a great deal of progress (many conversations have been started in the community, in schools, shops and services) and we are starting to hear feedback on how the lives of individuals and their families have been improved through the CalmKit and the associated campaign of awareness, understanding and acceptance. Of course, there are still plenty of places and people in Bellingen Shire and beyond who haven‘t heard about Sensory Processing Disorder and we will continue to work at expanding the campaign. In fact, there are already plans afoot to create sensory friendly spaces and to campaign in neighbouring Coffs Harbour and nearby Kempsey Shire so look out for us in those spaces soon!
The gorgeous weighted chickens- can you explain how these work?
Cuddling the chickens proves to be a very calming experience. Essentially it comes down to a combination of deep-pressure (the chickens are weighted with sand, or poly-pellets), the texture (feel) and colour (visual stimulation) of the yarn and the association with cuddling a real animal such as a beloved pet. Naturally, this all combines to create a deeply soothing and relaxing effect. Bellingen Public School has several chickens and I‘ve heard many stories from parents about how beloved class chooks are.
What has been your driver for establishing this campaign?
I‘m a Kiwi originally and have been a bit of a Gypsy my whole life. My family settled in Bello 10 years ago, including my parents and my husbands parents, and my brother-in-law and his family. 4 years ago my youngest child was diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum and one of the challenges that came along with this was her strong negative reactions to the hustle and bustle of visiting town to get the milk and bread or what have you. Our trips were like military operations, planned to get in and get out as quickly as possible and only do what is absolutely essentially. That can be pretty stressful and isolating and when combined with stares and sometimes scowls at her ‘tantrum‘ was also quite distressing for me or any other family member out with her. Fortunately, I know what a strong and caring community we have here in Bello and our efforts to create positive change has been embraced quickly.
Has the Shire been supportive in your drive to build awareness and community support for this worthwhile cause?
We began this project with initial support from Mid Coast Communities and the AbilityLinks program, placing 4 trial kits in the centre of Bellingen. Based on the success of this trial, we were contacted by Anna Joy, the Community Wellbeing and Engagement Officer at Bellingen Shire Council, with an offer to support us in applying for a FundAbility grant from Northcott. We‘ve just placed a further 15 CalmKits throughout the Shire, at Dorrigo, Bellingen and Urunga and the response from the community has been very supportive. Everywhere we go, we meet someone who has personal experience of these sensory difficulties or knows someone close to them, or at their work, or school. I don‘t think I realised just how many people around me are affected by this and it spurs me on to keep up the work of making tools available to anyone, especially children, who might need this type of support – to feel as centred as they can and be able to maintain better relationships with their family, their school and their community because they aren‘t in a state of sensory distress. We are well on the way to building a ‘sensory friendly community’.
Can locals get involved in knitting the weighted chooks?
Absolutely. We are running a ‘knit a sensory friendly weighted chook’ workshop at the Bellingen Youth Hub, Sunday 27th August, 2pm-4pm. Bring some wool and knitting needles. Gold Coin Donation.