Using systematic desensitisation with people we support - Avenues Group
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Using systematic desensitisation with people we support

Thursday 9th of March 2017

Sarah Kean, Practice Development Lead at Avenues talks about systematic desensitisation and its value when working with people with learning disabilities and/or autism.

So what is systematic desensitisation? It’s a type of behavioural therapy. It works by teaching a person to associate feelings of relaxation with something they previously felt anxious about. The thing the person fears is slowly introduced, for example for someone who is scared of spiders they may start by looking at a picture of a spider. This builds up slowly over time until the person learns not to react with anxiety.

We’ve been able to use systematic desensitisation successfully at one of our services to enable two of the people we support to have blood tests, ECGS and flu jabs without sedation. In order to do this the team did some work with the Community Health team who provided a desensitisation program, which involved 4 steps carried out over 12 weeks. This could look different for different people, it’s all about gauging the responses of the person you are supporting and then tailoring the approach to suit them.

A blood test or flu jab may take just 5 minutes but the people we support will feel the effects of sedation for days afterwards. They may not understand why they feel like this and be unable to carry out activities or access the community. There may also be a link to behaviour that challenges, for example we know that a trigger for some behaviour that challenges is feeling unwell, which sedation may lead to.

Systematic desensitisation is an option for long-term treatment. It can be used for any activity, not just health interventions. In fact I think lots of support workers use it subconsciously every day. I’ve share what I’ve learned about systematic desensitisation at The National Challenging Behaviour Strategy Group and had some really positive responses, perhaps because this isn’t an approach which automatically springs to mind. However it’s an approach that can be really effective and allows us to prioritise the long term well-being of the people we support.