In a room at the Sensory Stepping Stones center in Mount Kisco, New York, a group of students are working together to train a therapy dog. Together, the students have to figure out how to teach the dog certain tasks and in doing so, they themselves have to figure out how to work as a group, communicate with one another, plan, and develop interpersonal relationships. This is one small program among many which help special needs students learn at the Sensory Stepping Stones center, where a holistic approach to treatment is the main focus instead of medication, and the environment avoids feeling or looking like a traditional school.
The alternative programs offered by the Sensory Stepping Stones center help those with attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), nonverbal learning disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brain injuries, developmental delays, executive functioning delays, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and many other similar disorders through a variety of programs specifically designed for a student’s maximum benefit.
Sensory Stepping Stones' programs are often used for children in grades preK through high school, but they can also be used with adults. According to Executive Director Melissa Bianchini, a former social worker who founded the business in 2011, the center has treated people from age three to ninety-three.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting a person to a better place,” Bianchini says.
Testimonials on the website from previous clients attest to this success.
“The Sensory Learningsm Program has been informational. As a school psychologist by trade it has made me much more aware of the importance of the dominant ear & how important it is to know what ACTUAL information is sent to the brain. The first notable difference was my son’s ability to carry a tune. He has been much more aware of other’s feelings and spontaneously saying ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’. These things did not come easy to him,” writes the parent of an eight-year-old with sensory processing issues.
“After the Sensory Learningsm Program I have noticed that my daughter takes notice of more of her surroundings (larger field of vision). She is also much more inquisitive about people and places. She is using more sentence structure and engaging in more conversation. She is able to communicate her feelings more,” comments the parent of a six-year-old child with developmental delays.
“The Sensory Learningsm Program has changed my life for the better. I’ve been given the opportunity to be a better person and follow through on the goals I’ve set. Before this program, every and any interruption prevented me from getting through daily tasks and clouded my better judgment. This would drain me mentally and physically. It is amazing having a second chance to a better life. Sensory Stepping Stones has allowed me to have this, drug-free. I am forever grateful!” adds a thirty-eight year old with ADHD and anxiety.
Bianchini’s background in psychology, neuroscience, anatomy and physiology got her interested in neurological processing and sensory integration, which in turn found her working as the Educational Director at a sensory integration clinic in Arizona, before moving to New York to open one of just thirty such centers in New England.
“I wanted to be hands on,” she explains. Her strong background in brain processing lead her to starting post graduate work at Arizona State University in neuroscience, anatomy and physiology, but she found her calling working with people.
“The brain interested me, but helping people interested me even more,” she says. “If there’s a problem, there has to be more than one solution.”
With a staff of trained professionals including social work and occupational therapy (OT) services, graduate level assistants, and between four and five undergraduate and graduate students, the Sensory Stepping Stones center is able to address many issues traditional school programs can’t, and all of its programs are backed up with clinical studies showing their effectiveness.
“We expect everyone to just ‘get it’ and it just doesn’t work that way,” Bianchini explains.
By using a variety of components specifically aimed at a student’s needs, the student learns how to improve him or herself. There is no other program like it in the New England area. “When we work the program, we really try to push the neuroplasticity of the brain for noticeable changes,” Bianchini explains.
Those solutions can be found in the variety of holistic programs, which do not focus on medication, offered by the Sensory Stepping Stones center, including:
- Sensory LearningSM, an intensive multi-modal intervention addressing auditory, visual, and movement issues in students with conditions including dysfunctional sensory integration, sensitivities to light, sound or motion, delays in motor skills, irregular sleep/activity patterns and sensory processing issues. The program does require some inpatient training and has different plans for adolescents and adults.
- Interactive Metronome, which uses game-like programs designed to use helps students with conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, autism, auditory processing disorders, and reading disorders increase their ability to focus and control impulsivity and aggression. Participants learn to filter out visual and auditory distractions and increase body awareness and mental focus.
- Cognitive/Memory Training, used to improve skills including attention, reasoning, memory, self-esteem, listening skills, eye-hand coordination, impulse control, and quick processing speed. This type of training is aimed at students who have cognitive impairments including, but not limited to, ADHD/ADD, brain injuries, psychological disorders, learning delays, and schizophrenia.
- Neuro/Bio/Educational Feedback, used to improve focus, attention, academic performance, social interaction, and behaviors like hyperactivity and and ADHD with both peers and family.
- Reading Development utilizing both phonics and reading comprehension presented in a hierarchal structure that addresses different issues as the student gains mastery.
- Peak Performance Training, aimed at athletes. According to the website, “When participating in the Peak Performance Training program, the individual can receive a complete and specifically designed training program encompassing visual tracking, sport specific balance/coordination, sensorimotor integration, mental and muscular endurance and neuropsychological functioning.”
Additional therapies offered include:
- Clinical Canine Intervention, described above. When the therapy dog, provided and overseen by Heidi Bonorato, founder of Giving Retriever, LLC, is trained, the dog goes to a family whose members have impairments or physical disabilities.
- Speech, language and feeding/swallowing disorders treated by Speech and language therapist Laura R. Bacon, M.S., CCC-SLP.
- Social skills and processing groups using small groups of three to eight children at a time to target behaviors including taking turns, cooperation, communicating effectively, problem solving, awareness of personal space, active listening and conversational skills, understanding other’s emotions, understanding one’s own emotions, conflict resolution, anger management, and dealing with teasing and bullying.
- Parent support groups and programs give parents the support and information they need to understand their child and his or her issues. One support group includes a therapy dog. The Sensory Stepping Stones center also offers free monthly informational meetings for parents. These meetings are run by specialists or center staff.
- Timocco, “a cutting-edge virtual motion gaming system that accelerates the development of motor and cognitive skills including bi-lateral coordination, crossing the midline, hand-eye coordination, attention, posture, visual discrimination, early learning, communication, short-term memory and teamwork skills.”
- The Listening Program, an at-home program using sound stimulation auditory training to improve active listening and auditory perception for those with auditory processing issues.
Diet is another important aspect of the programs at Sensory Stepping Stones center. Bianchini explains, “We work with nutritionists and other specialists. What we put in us affects our reactions.” She encourages parents to make healthier choices, and if they need additional help, directs them to additional resources.
The center’s Pinterest has boards for sensory room ideas, food, kid’s activities, parenting tips, books, and tools and toys for kids. Their Twitter feed provides encouraging messages and informational links.
In addition to Bianchini, Bonorato, and Bacon, the Sensory Stepping Stones staff includes Audrey Curley, a licensed and registered pediatric occupational therapist; and Irvine, a Golden Retriever therapeutic dog that knows over ninety different skills to help the disabled. Irvine had previously worked with the Wounded Warriors in the Service Dog Training Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The most common question Bianchini gets from potential clients and parents is about the research behind the range of different programs used by Sensory Stepping Stones. When clients and parents meet with Bianchini, she provides them with packets documenting the research. “I want them to get comfortable with the research and the facility,” she explains. There are also links to the programs used on the website.
The most rewarding part of starting and running Sensory Stepping Stones is, “When a family member comes back and is now excelling in school and sports when they couldn’t before,” Bianchini says.
The center is a private, fee-for-service business, which means they are unable to work regularly with local schools. They depend on word of mouth to attract new clients, and sometimes a leap of faith from potential clients not familiar with the center’s holistic practices.
Tim Fitzgibbons, who has a son with sensory issues and step-son with special needs, said, “I would recommend it, depending on what (parents) have already tried and what they can afford and the other circumstances in their lives.”
He added, “There’s certainly many ways to reach kids who are in the areas they're interested in and (the center is) one of of them. I don’t know if that would work for everyone, but it might work for some people.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Sensory Stepping Stones, please contact them directly. You can reach them on (914)-244-4101 or by emailing email@example.com. They pride themselves on getting back to you within twenty-four hours and will do a complete assessment to find out which programs will benefit you or your family member best.
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