Head to Head

Sensory Hearing Facilities Opening

“Their aspirations became my inspiration”- May Dunsmuir, Chamber President (Health and Education Chamber), First-tier Tribunal for Scotland, speaking at the opening in February of the sensory hearing facilities. (‘Hearing’ refers to court hearing and not to senses). The sensory hearing facilities have been designed to reduce 'sensory overload' for children and young people who attend Additional Support Needs (ASN) Tribunals, the majority of whom have autism, with debilitating sensory sensitivities.  The facilities have been designed by children for children.  

When a child has ASN, the Tribunals Service makes decisions where there are disagreements about the child’s school education. These can include, among others, deciding whether or not a child should have a Co-ordinated Support Plan (CSP), deciding appropriate school placements, deciding whether the child has experienced discrimination at school as a result of their disability and so on. Children aged between 12 – 15 can make their own application to the service. Current cases involve children between the ages of 2 and 18. The majority of children who access the Tribunals Service have autism.  

For children who have sensory sensitivities and difficulty with processing information, the idea of a court hearing is overwhelming. It is an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people and processes, unfamiliar sounds, away from their comfort zone of familiarity, causing distress and anxiety. The sensory hearings facilities are designed to be a safe space, an area of sensory tranquillity helping children feel calmer and more able to manage and to be confident about having a say in any decisions that are being made about them.  

Children from a variety of backgrounds were asked about their experience at Tribunals and invited to say how their participation could be improved and how the barriers could be overcome. These children became ‘child consultants’ for various aspects such as hearings, images, website, training, décor etc. They contributed on colours, fabrics, furniture, layout of hearings rooms and waiting areas. A low arousal environment, free of physical distractions, was created… no pictures on the wall unless specifically requested, softer colours rather than primary colours, although some are bold nonetheless, a variety of fabrics and textures to appeal to the senses. Children may enter the building by a separate entrance and lift and avoid the noise and busy-ness of the security screening at the front door. This lift leads straight on to the floor where the hearing will take place, a straight corridor, no zig-zagging. Waiting rooms are right next to hearing rooms to avoid long walks through corridors or unfamiliar faces.

Children decided that, in the hearing room, a round table would be the best, “like King Arthur’s round table, where all the knights were equal” and chairs of equal height for everyone around the table. Screened break-out areas are included with beanbags and snacks so that children can take a break when needed but still be part of the process. Children may personalise the environment by bringing objects that make them feel calm or send photographs of pets or family members or anything they wish, that can be projected on to the sensory wall of the hearing room, providing them with some familiarity and comfort. Windows have roller blinds to increase or decrease natural light. A separate calming sensory room is available where children can take a break away completely to de-stress.  

There are three hearing rooms with adjacent waiting rooms. There is also a 1:1 evidence room in hearing room 2 which can be requested by a child. It is a place to go with one person who will ask questions which have been pre-agreed by the Tribunal. This room has a two way mirror and microphone so that the child is seen and heard in the hearing room, but cannot see or be overwhelmed by people around the table.  

Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People endorsed the service and thanked May Dunsmuir for her contribution in improving the experience of children and young people with ASN. May Dunsmuir thanked the schools, individuals and agencies who have supported this work and spoke passionately about the children whom she has encountered over the years and remembers to this day, and about the child consultants whose aspirations became her inspiration in an effort to remove barriers. It seems like they have thought of everything.  

Bernadette Casey

AHDS Vice President