In This Episode
Dr. Winnie Dunn, occupational therapist, is a world-renowned expert the sensory experience, researcher and author of the book Living Sensationally. She has pioneered our understanding of our senses and helps us recognize that sensory processing is fundamental to our brains. Dr. Dunn fills us with hope and inspires us to live sensationally.
About Our Guest, Dr. Winnie Dunn
Throughout the course of this podcast I’ve asked guests to introduce themselves. I do this for a very specific reason. In fact, two reasons. The first, is that how someone describes their own work is almost always more fruitful than the bio someone else wrote for them. The second is that a global pandemic is jarring to every system from federal governments to individual mission statements and 2020 has been a year of dramatic change both personal and professional.
Takeaways From This Episode
In this episode with the towering Dr. Winnie Dunn, I broke my own rule and asked if I could read her her own bio and test it’s legitimacy. Winnie very graciously accepted.
“Okay, here we go. Dr. Winnie Dunn is a world renowned expert on the ways that sensory experiences affect our everyday lives. She’s studied babies to older adults, to identify patterns or reactions to sensations and has published more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books. Her book, Living Sensationally: Understanding Your Senses is written for the public, and contains over 100 entertaining stories to illustrate how people’s sensory reactions affect their relationships and daily life.”
“She has received numerous research and teaching awards as well, and has been invited to speak throughout the world. Her work has been featured in Time Magazine, on Canadian Public Radio, in the London Times newspaper and in Cosmopolitan Magazine.”
Although minor details have changed, the essence of the bio remains the same. That Dr. Winnie Dunn is a pioneer in the sensory processing space and that we’re very lucky to have her.
How do we ‘live sensationally?’ in the current moment?
Of all the episodes we’ve been lucky enough to give our Sensory Friendly Solutions community, Episode #08 was perhaps the most emotional. Why? Because we were lucky enough to reach Dr. Dunn on the morning of the U.S election. Winnie came to us via the University of Missouri and it was clear that this a powerful moment in America.
“It is so wrought with emotion. Everyone is anxious and excited. I think the good thing about the hard period we’ve been through is that it has activated people. Democracy only works if all the citizenry participate, and we are having record participation.”
Perhaps, for many, 2020 really has been the perfect storm.
“…this is such a complex time, isn’t it? All these things converging.”
For Winnie, who also holds a certificate in positive psychology, within the disruption there is the potential for break-through. After having spent almost an hour in conversation with her, I believe this has been a recurring theme in her life as a pioneer of understanding sensory processing.
“I’m hoping this is the breaking open period for the world.”
Dr. Winnie Dunn is exploring our human experience.
I asked Dr. Dunn about understanding this experience of being human at a deeper level. At the level of the senses.
“The thing about sensory processing, it is a fundamental feature of the human experience. Our brains don’t know anything, if they don’t know it from our senses. That’s the only way. It’s the only way we know anything. And because it’s so fundamental, people tend to look over it…”
“The good news…is that we can do something about a tangible thing, like something being too noisy, or too scratchy, or too slimy or too bright. We can take an action based on understanding that our senses are getting overloaded. That sense of being able to take an action helps us feel more… It’s a step towards feeling more in control.”
This theme of ‘naming’ what we’re feeling has been a central theme in the work of several pioneers that we’ve interview throughout the course of this podcast. When we talk about sensory processing, the importance of giving name to what we are experience has been repeated throughout. From Maureen Bennie, to Carol Stock Kranowitz, to Stella Waterhouse, to Dr. Bill Wong.
“I think one of the greatest gifts that knowledge about sensory processing has given the people who know about it is the idea that they can understand themselves, they can understand their family members, their co-workers, and they can add grace to the story.”
What does it mean to be a pioneer of sensory processing?
For many guests on this podcast, they stepped into what was then only an emerging field. They found gaps in the market and they took the steps necessary to fill those gaps by arming themselves with the knowledge, lived-experience and expertise we now draw on in the later stages of their career.
“When I started being an occupational therapist, children didn’t get to go to school that had severe disabilities, and girls didn’t get to play sports. We didn’t have all the vaccines we have today. We didn’t have some of the strategies for people that have hearing impairments…”
“When I started as an occupational therapist, I lived in Missouri and Missouri had a special education law before the federal government in America had one. So, I was able to get hired by a public school because I had a master’s degree in special education in a brand new field called learning disabilities.”
When she looks back at the arc of her career, she is able to find patterns there but is also able to define the fundamental feature of her professional experience…
“That willingness to go into a setting and use those skills as an occupational therapist to make that place better in a way that no other regular public education school could do because they didn’t have any occupant therapists there.”
“…my career is marked by that willingness to be adventurous and willingness to ask questions and willingness to changing my mind when I got new information.”
Creating authentic places
“…what I see in my career is that I kept working in authentic places. I worked in public education, I created these preschool programs in these rural areas while I worked on my PhD. I always cared about the places where people inhabited, not the places that we professionals create for them like clinics and hospitals. And I know people have to go to the hospital and we’re all glad to have them there, but the core of OT is about living. So when I look back on my career, I see that I kept choosing authentic places.”
Even when Winnie got her PhD, it was in a field that simply had not yet developed into maturity
“My PhD is in neuroscience, and again, it was a program that wasn’t developed yet. I was in the first graduating class of the OT program at Mizzou. I was also in the first graduating class of the special education learning disabilities stream at Mizzou. Then several years later when I went and got my applied neuroscience degree, my PhD at Kansas, they were trying to develop an interdisciplinary PhD, which was unheard of at the time. They were experimenting with neuroscience because by its nature, it’s interdisciplinary.”
Sensory Processing is a window unto the world
“I really want people to understand that sensory processing isn’t an end to itself, it’s a way to understand people so that we can help them make their lives more successful and satisfying. It’s a piece of information that helps us do better. It’s not the end by itself.”
This revelation in the literature and in the work of Winnie Dunn has been particularly impactful for families. Reminiscent of the reflections from Episode #05 with author of ‘The Out-of-Sync Child’ Carol Stock Kranowitz.
“I see sensory processing knowledge as a tool to help us do the other things we do better. We can talk to families, “Well, he’s sensitive to sound so how’s it going to be when he goes to grandma’s house? What’s it like there? What are some things you can do to manage that? How are you going to handle it if he starts to get overloaded? What are you going to do next? How are you going to talk to your mom about this so she understands what’s going to happen when you get to her house?” It makes the families feel like we get them, it makes the families feel like we’re listening…”
We have to talk about being human
In Dr. Dunn’s book ‘Living Sensationally’ she digs deep into the world of the senses. In it, you’ll read stories about the experience of being human; the key ingredient in great science communication.
“I feel like we have to talk about being a human being, so that’s what Living Sensationally does. It’s talking about sensory processing in a way that your mom, and your aunt, and your uncle, and everybody in your neighbourhood can understand. It has lots of stories about people, giving illustrations of how your sensory patterns show up in your everyday life and what you can do about it…”
“…it dawned on me that this is about all of us. The gift that people with conditions like autism have given us is by showing us what it looks like in a more intense version of maybe the version that we have and that makes it easier for us to talk about, because we can see the terrain of it, we can see the topography of it.”
I asked Dr. Dunn, what are your personal strategies to reduce the noise of the current era?
“I have really set my mind to more doing. I love to cook, so all the verbs in the kitchen. Chopping, and smelling, and stirring, and tasting and experimenting.”
I found myself coming back to this answer time and time again. I realized it was because of it’s sensory roots; digging in to the world of our senses in this moment of disruption, not ignoring them or hiding them.
Dr. Dunn also encouraged us to find stability in routine.
“I dress up every day, I put jewelry on and come upstairs to work. A couple of days I know a lot of people just stay in their yoga pants or stay in their whatever, it got me really depressed and anxious. So I get an outfit out, I get dressed, I put on my jewelry. People tease me on Zoom. They’re looking for what my accessories are today.”
Her final piece of advice?
“What a time to be talking about just all the feelings, the information coming at us. The feeling of overload and of being a little overly stimulated by the news and having lots of anxiety and worry about that. It was interesting, Dr. Dunn, Winnie started her chat…with hope. She started and finished with hope. She started with this perspective that at a complex time, what we’re experiencing, having to go through an election during a pandemic and a time of great uncertainty, but she gave this anticipation that complex times are often followed by great breakthroughs. That complexity in the world activates people together and we start paying attention to different things.”
The importance of taking action
“She talked about the next step being the ability to take action and that without that sense of uncertainty, that sense of knowing, that sense of confusion is challenging, but that with information ..”
“…they can take action. That they can take the next step and have the information that they need to move forward. Dr. Dunn talked about just with her career path and her sense of discovery, the ability to change her mind with new information, the ability to change what she does with new information. I think in sensory processing, in dealing with sensory challenges and trying to find sensory solutions, that ability to persist, to glean and learn new information and then change what you do is incredibly powerful.”
Christel’s final reflections brought us back to being human.
“…we’re sensory beings. Human beings are sensory beings and processing, we have to look at … Processing our senses, it’s fundamental to who we are and what we do, and it’s a tool to do other things better.”
Throughout the course of the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast, we want to ensure that you take action. Moreover, we hope we have, in some way, improved your quality of life.
First, from all of us here at Sensory Friendly Solutions, a big thank you to everyone who has written in to tell us how much they enjoy the Innovation Segment. We want this podcast to point towards solutions. Yes, we dig in to the career arc of some of the best in the industry. We explore the work they’ve built. And, we also uncover the resources that we hope become your ‘sensory friendly arsenal.’
For Episode #08 of the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast, we’re sharing the great work of Dr. Winnie Dunn and former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy.
- Dr. Winnie Dunn’s penultimate book, ‘Living Sensationally.’
- Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book on our modern moment, ‘Together.’
Dr. Winnie Dunn, thank you for your leadership and for your participation in the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast.