St Helens health chiefs offer unique autism therapy using sunflowers

St Helens mum Katie Shallcross and Arlo
St Helens mum Katie Shallcross and Arlo
Share this article

Sunflower training programme delivers rays of delight to families in St Helens.

Five Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust has developed a unique training programme aimed at parents and carers of children with neurodevelopmental difficulties such as sensory processing, autism and attention deficit disorder.

After noticing a large amount of children seen in their St Helens and Knowsley clinics weren’t engaging in traditional methods of therapy, the Community Paediatric Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy Team stopped what wasn’t working and invested time into developing a more holistic approach.

The result was the Sunflower Parent Sensory Training Programme, a classroom-based coaching package helping parents develop a personalised ‘sensory diet’ – strategies to help their children understand and regulate their senses – together with healthcare professionals.

Ali Unsworth, community paediatric occupational therapy and physiotherapy team leader at 5 Boroughs Partnership, said: “We realised what we had been doing wasn’t working so we had the courage to stop, consult with families and involve a parent who was an expert by experience to help us develop a training programme for parents which aims to empower families.

“We work with colleagues in speech and language teams in both St Helens and Knowsley to provide a therapeutic, patient-centred approach to the sensory diet.

“The programme has received so much positive feedback to date. As a result of their sensory diet, one child on the programme who had been isolated by his peers due to his autism was invited to a classmate’s party for the first time.

“However small the change, it is so important for the families we work with to be able to better understand their child and their needs.

“It is a privilege for my team and I to be able to help change the lives of children by working with their families to develop strategies that ultimately will have a big impact on their development into adulthood.

“Since the course began in January this year, parents and carers of 140 children have been on the course. We now hope to expand into schools across the borough.”

For Eccleston mum Katie Shallcross and her son Arlo, aged six, the Sunflower Parent Sensory Training Programme has proved invaluable.

Katie commented: “Arlo has motor skill and sensory difficulties so I self-referred him to the Occupational Therapy Team in St Helens. I’d heard about the Sunflower Programme and mentioned it to Arlo’s school and, once I had been accepted on to the programme, I took his school one-to-one support assistant with me.

“I was immediately very impressed. It was so helpful to learn which techniques work for each child and it made us more aware of Arlo’s needs and what can trigger him to become upset or disorientated. For example, the simplest things like the brightness of the lights in his bedroom. I found out that keeping the lights low reduced the tension for Arlo.

“Previously, if we went out as a family, it would be difficult for Arlo - any loud noises would trigger his sensitivities and he would get very upset.

“Now as a family, we can go to more places. It’s amazing how a bit more understanding has helped him be more aware of the small things that can impact upon him.

“We’ve seen a big improvement in his behaviour too. Arlo is more aware and at school he is able to have sensory breaks. This understanding has significantly improved his way of life.

“I am so pleased and grateful to have been part of the programme.”