Guest Post: The Power of Puzzles

Emily Alexander has a magical secret... she works for Santa at The International Elf Service. She is also a Registered Osteopath and a Mum to a wonderful little boy who has Down's syndrome and sensory processing disorder.

Here she charts how sensory integration therapy is helping her son to achieve more when doing visual and cognitive tasks. As she points out, this intervention would not suit all children, but if your child is displaying some of the same symptoms, it might be worth investigating. In particular the power of jigsaw puzzles to help with visual overload is discussed.

You can read more about the start of her son's journey over on her blog Sensory Processing Disorder and Our Boy with Down's Syndrome.

The power of puzzles to help with Visual Overload

Visual Overload: The Dazzle Effect

Here's the science bit first. 

All day, every day, we receive information from the world around us via our senses – food we bite in to, things we touch, what we see, smell, noises we hear and so on. Our nervous system is constantly assessing all this information and generating appropriate physical responses. Everything we do requires us to incorporate sensory information into meaningful and successful interactions with the environment.  Sometimes our bodies over or under react to this information and that affects our ability to perform tasks, behave appropriately or cope in certain situations.

Have you ever had that feeling when you’re asked to do a jigsaw puzzle and you just sit and stare at all the pieces and just don’t know where to start?  This is what I fondly refer to as ‘The Dazzle Effect,’ or Visual Overload.  

Some of us just don’t bother while others of us will work at finding a starting point and then we’re off.  Some people whizz through them and find large puzzles easy, while other people can do them fine but they just don’t enjoy them as they’re a bit too hard to be fun and would sooner give up than battle their way through it.

Well that’s what we found with our boy and the various ‘tasks’ we were trying to get him to do.  We’re all told about early intervention and how we should be doing picture matching, word matching, writing practice, problem solving, memory games and all the rest of it but we found that more often than not, our son just didn’t comply.  So, was it so easy he was bored?  Could he see ok?  Was it too hard for him?  What was going on?

Well, who knew…it appears that he was having a bit of trouble with his visual discrimination skills and was suffering from visual overload. 

Apparently this is an issue for about 20-25% of the population as a whole and often goes unnoticed or isn’t addressed as well as it could be.

What on earth is ‘Visual Discrimination’?

Visual discrimination is the ability to process information we receive via our eyes and identify differences in visual images.  This could be pictures in a book, different letters or words, numbers, items on a coat rack.  Anything you can see basically. 

Some children struggle with this even though they have 20:20 vision (with or without glasses). Things you may notice:

·        Struggling to match clothing (e.g. socks), shapes or see the difference between different coins.
·        Finding it difficult to pick out something from a page (e.g. find it difficult to locate and point to the sheep / bag in a picture etc).
·        Struggling to see the differences between similar looking letters, words or numbers.
·        Doesn’t pay attention to visual tasks.
·        Confusion with like or subtle differences.
·        Struggling to recognise letters or numbers and remembering them.
·        Trouble recognising the same word repeated on a page.

One of the reasons it could be is because the child just finds it all too much work see the wood from the trees.  NOW I understand where that saying comes from!

This could be for several reasons.  Such as if children don’t develop good visual processing skills like:

Eye Tracking (which starts when we’re babies - what you do when watching people move around the room.
Eye Teaming (when your eyes work together as a team in a co-ordinated and precise way, which is also the basis for good depth perception)
 Visual Perception (the ability to process and interpret what you’re seeing, which is what this post is about)

…they get very frustrated and distracted easily and just want to give up.  Well, who wouldn’t?

But the great news is it appears there are things we can do to help because visual processing skills develop in much the same way as motor skills do  practice practice practice!

Jigsaw Puzzles

Now this is an absolutely vast area so I’m just picking one area we’re working on to tell you about for now.  Jigsaw Puzzles.  He used to be an absolute shocker at them and get very frustrated and essentially get us to do them for him under his watchful eye.  He’s so much better now, persists for longer without help, finds the right pieces himself (more often than not) and happily works away with big and small pieces. I’ve also seen improvements in his self-confidence, willingness to participate in more new and unfamiliar tasks, his attitude to learning, his fine motor skills and his willingness to be more independent.

So why bother doing jigsaw puzzles in particular?

Well, the visual perceptual skills we need to do a jigsaw puzzle are the same skills we need for reading and writing but they’re also closely related to language and cognitive development too (e.g. memory and problem solving etc).

The key things we do when puzzling

1.    Before we do anything, if our boy hasn’t just been running around, we do alerting exercises to make sure he’s fully awake and ready to go (and these also happen to be good for his gross motor development too!):

·      Crawling, bouncing, clapping, squat jumps / star jumps, balling his hands into a fist and then flicking his fingers out again.

(When we first started, we started with just 5 jumps and watched to see how he processed this and whether he became disorientated, loud, excitable or wobbly.  He can tolerate much more now as his system has got better at processing sensory information and he stays alert and focused for longer in between times).

2.    Then we calm his system down by doing things like:

·      Going on to all fours and weight bearing through his hands, holding something heavy, sit on the floor (row row your boat position) and ask him to pull back against us), pushing against a wall, sit him on our lap and do deep squeezes of his shoulders, arms, legs, feet, hands and give him a big, firm but gentle bear hug.

3.    For the actual puzzling bit:

·      He’s better sitting at the table if the pieces are small but he also benefits from doing larger pieced more simple puzzles on the floor where he can move around, reach, stretch and weight bear on his hands.  Can’t miss an opportunity for a bit of gross motor exercise!

·      We always make him use two hands!  So one hand stabilises the puzzle while the other hand adds the piece.  This helps with his neural mapping and ensures that he’s getting direct feedback from both hands so he can correct his positioning as necessary.

·      We started with small puzzles with very simple images and built up – don’t be afraid to start with 2-piece ones if needs be. 

·      Focus his attention by pointing to specific items or colours on a piece and provide meaning by naming or describing the object.  Then we talk about matching the colours up.

·      Work on his ability to scan visual information by guiding his focus over the whole image (again through pointing) and providing lots of visual and auditory cues. E.g. can you see the ball? Good looking.  ‘Is the ball here? Or here?  As he’s got more confident we’ve gradually faded out the prompts, so he can work towards being a completely independent puzzler.

·      Help with orientating each individual piece (explaining how to do it – pointing to the specific colours that need to match up with the main puzzle ) and then help using hand over hand or with a sneaky nudge to help get it in as necessary.

·      Started by giving him one piece to attach, then 2 to choose from, then three and so on.
·      We do movement breaks with alerting and then calming exercises when his concentration starts to fade dramatically.  As time has gone on, he’s needed them much less frequently and has just been more enthusiastic about table-top tasks in general.  We will either come back to the same task or move on to something else.

·      He really feels the benefit of achievement so we make sure that we always end a task on a high note.  So in the case of a puzzle, it doesn’t matter if he hasn’t finished the whole puzzle (depending on the size of it) but as long as he located and got the last piece in by himself or just put it in by himself…it all depends on what he’s working on at the time.

Other things we’re doing to encourage and develop his visual processing (and cognitive) skills on an ongoing basis are:

·        Match colours, fruit & veg, socks, cutlery, natural items (sticks, rocks, leaves) pictures, letters, words, numbers…anything we can lay our hands on!

·        Play ‘who can see?’ – start with a simple picture in a book and work up to busy images, asking him to point to various things.  This forces him to scan the image and pay attention to detail.  We ask several simple ones we know he can do to get his confidence up and then one he’ll find hard and repeat.

·        Match shapes – actual 3D ones as well as line drawings.

·        Memory Exercises.

·        Differentiate things in both black & white and colour images – photos or pictures of anything including simple line drawings and shadow images.

·        Which shape fits?  Shape sorters, peg puzzles or visual images with a piece missing…e.g. show a black rectangle with a piece missing and ask which of the white accompanying shapes fits the bit that’s been cut out.

·        Hand eye co-ordination crafts and wipe clean activity books e.g. drawing / dot-to-dot / mazes / letters / numbers (he uses a whiteboard marker as it’s thicker).

·        Spot the difference is another good one but we haven’t tried that yet.

The trick 

The trick for us has been to build this new sensory diet approach into our day as a new way of playing and to not think of it as ‘therapy’.  We’re much quicker at knowing when he needs to do something different and how to get as much as we can out of a fine motor / cognitive session before moving onto something else.

Oh and I’m getting better at puzzles too…

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and have found it helpful in some way.  Our little ones are amazing!

Thank you so much Hayley for including my post as part of World Down Syndrome Day.  I feel incredibly honoured to be included on your wonderful and highly respected blog and I feel so lucky to be part of such an incredible community.  Emily

1 comment:

  1. I'm a huge advocate for jigsaw puzzles and their numerous benefits. Not only are they a great way to spend quality time with family and friends, but they also offer a range of cognitive advantages. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle requires critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and the ability to visualize the bigger picture while working on the smaller components. It's a fantastic exercise for both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, enhancing creativity, memory, and spatial awareness. Jigsaw puzzles are versatile too—there's a puzzle for everyone, from simple ones for beginners to complex ones for seasoned enthusiasts. They're an excellent way to unwind, boost mental sharpness, and create beautiful artwork—all in one fulfilling activity!


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