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Sunday, June 16 News

Woog’s World: Therapy for the senses

Melissa Kahn grew up in a family filled with doctors. Surrounded by neuropsychologists, world-renowned researchers and an influential OBGYN, she assumed she would follow their path.

She was accepted into a seven-year medical program. But after doing her internships, Kahn realized there was a glass ceiling for women in medicine. She had always known she wanted to be a mother — something else she realized might hold her back. She began searching for a new career.

Kahn found occupational therapy. She was awarded a full scholarship to Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Kahn was hired by the New York City Board of Education. She worked in schools, and did home care after hours.

But again Kahn was not fully satisfied. There was so much red tape, and much of her work centered on fine motor skills. It was as if handwriting was the main focus of therapy for children with sensory and occupational issues.

Kahn wanted to do more. She started her own practice in New Jersey. Her goal was to find the root of individual problems, then develop specific therapeutic strategies, in a holistic way.

“There’s often more than one issue going on at the same time,” Kahn says. For example, a child with anxiety or ADHD may also have a sensory processing disorder. Kahn headed to Colorado, to study sensory processing and auditory therapy.

In sensory processing disorders, the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. Youngsters may find sound to be painful or overwhelming. The feeling of a shirt on skin may be uncomfortable. They may be unable to tell where their limbs are, in space.

Kahn’s family was from Westchester, N.Y., so when her program was over she headed back east. Realizing that Connecticut lacked a practice dedicated to multisensory and pediatric occupational therapy, she opened one in Cos Cob. Ten yeas later, needing more space, she moved it to Stamford. It’s called Sensory Kids.

Now Kahn has joined with clinical psychologist Dr. Christopher Bogart to open SFSK in Wilton. It offers a collaborative approach to solving learning, emotional and social/ behavioral issues caused by ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, and a variety of sensory, learning and processing disorders.

Kahn also designs therapeutic spaces. She’s worked with Norwalk Hospital’s children wing, with private clients, and designed a sensory gym for her Stamford and Wilton centers. Children with sensory processing issues learn through play, as every aspect of the gym has therapeutic uses.

Seven years ago, Kahn — who has a child with special needs — moved to Westport. She is a big believer in public schools, and was impressed with the services offered at Coleytown Elementary School. She has not been disappointed.

As someone who is both a professional and a mom, she is pleased that educators and parents no longer stigmatize sensory processing needs — or, even worse, regard therapies as “voodoo.”

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Westport schools are at the forefront of recognizing the needs of students with sensory processing disorders. They’ve instituted, or are actively looking at, concepts like sensory hallways. These colorful, creative paths — made easily with stickers for floors and walls — help children develop motor skills like balance, hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. They’re great too for any youngsters who need breaks from the classroom.

Plenty of children with sensory processing issues — and those with ADHD, anxiety and other disorders — have a hard time sitting still in class. Adaptive seating — which the Westport schools have embraced — include beanbag cushions, exercise ball chairs, and those with pedals, along with movable desks.

As involved as Kahn is with her work, she’s also made time to be the mom she always dreamed of being. And as with her work, she’s all in. She has three children of her own — and is the stepmother of three more.

“I love my family time,” she says. She has mastered time management. “I put the kids on the bus, work, drive them to activities, help with homework, and go back to work.”

All of her children are quite different. The one with sensory and learning issues is an avid competitive rock climber. One is a musician. Another is into sports.

“I don’t know how to say no to any of them,” Kahn says. So she volunteers as a soccer commissioner, PTA class mom, and a preschool board member (where she helped design the common play space).

“I don’t want to work only with other children,” she notes. “I want to be there for my own children’s moments too.”

That makes sense. And — when it comes to the senses — no one knows children (her own, and many others) better than Melissa Kahn.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com

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