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Teacher brings summer to students with disabilities through five senses

Marissa Caira and her class at Brookville Center

Marissa Caira and her class at Brookville Center for Children's Services at the AHRC Nassau campus on June 21. Credit: Rachel Weiss

The first day of summer was rainy and dark, but that didn’t stop Marissa Caira from bringing the beach to her students.

Caira is a teacher at Brookville Center for Children’s Services at the AHRC Nassau campus. The six students in her class are all on the autism spectrum. Since they’re in school all summer long, Caira hatched the idea to bring a little bit of the beach indoors on June 21.

“Since they do have special needs, going to the beach can be a challenge for some of them,” said Caira, 29.

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The beach can cause “sensory overload,” she said, particularly for individuals with autism. There are plenty of loud noises, from people shouting to seagulls screeching, plus all kinds of textures, such as concrete, the boardwalk and, of course, sand, often hot to the touch. The big crowds can also be very overwhelming, especially in the heat.

So, Caira’s plan was to have her class lead a special sensory activity with a summertime twist. The students would get to experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the beach, all from inside the multipurpose room. At a long table, Caira set up videos of sea life playing on iPads, candles that smelled like sunscreen and ocean mist, drums filled with beads that mimic sounds of crashing waves, juicy watermelon to snack on, and boxes of sand and water to touch.

Caira’s class sat behind the table while other students, ranging in age from 4 to 15, tried out each station. If anyone got overwhelmed, they were able to take a break and color some beach scenes at another table.

In addition to learning about the beach, Caira also wanted her students to build their socialization skills through the activity, and “think of their peers as their friends.” 

This is Caira’s second year in a row teaching this particular group of students. Prior to the activity, she taught a lesson about going to the beach and her students colored a banner to hang in the multipurpose room that said: “We Sense It’s Summer.” They were also able to choose which station they wanted to sit at, with taste and touch being the most sought-after activities, Caira said.

“The kinetic sand is weighted,” she said. “So the weight feels good on their hands. They can bury their hands and let it sit on top.”

The room was also decorated to look like the beach. Jake Baron, a staff trainer, brought in his own surfboard for the occasion.

Over the course of the morning, 10 classes came in for 15 minutes at a time to get a sense of summer. Individuals of all different abilities came together, and from the comfort of the multipurpose room, the sound of crashing waves and the texture of sand didn’t seem too intimidating.

One student, Christian Schuffenhauer, 7, is nonverbal and uses an iPad to communicate. He smiled while visiting each station, spending a lot of time playing with the ocean drum and dipping his hands in the sand. He used his iPad to say that his favorite part of summertime is swimming in the pool, and made little strokes with his arms before returning to the touch station.

After all of the students went back to their classrooms, Caira said she was surprised by how much everyone seemed to enjoy their day. She added that she hopes to do this activity again, for every season.

“You never know if they’re going to be overwhelmed by something,” she said. “But here, they can enjoy [the beach] in a safe environment.”

The biggest surprise, though, was which station was the most popular: touch. “I’m surprised the watermelon wasn’t a bigger hit!” Caira said with a laugh.

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