On 22 July SAISI hosted Dr Susanne Smith-Roley (indicated as SSR below), a scholar and mentee of Dr Ayres (JA), to celebrate her legacy on what would have been her 100th birthday.  The interview was facilitated by Dr Annamarie van Jaarsveld (AvJ), Gina Rencken (GR) and Ray-Anne Cook (RAC). I would like to share some of the impressions from the evening.  Please note that these quotes might not be word for word as Dr Ayres said them, but I hope to convey some of the wonderful insight we gained into her career, as a clinician and a mentor.

Dr Ayres as a clinician

Jean Ayres treated children out of a trailer before opening a clinic, and worked 5 1/2 days a week.  She was pragmatic and frugal, using what she could find that was either free or re-usable.  We see these values carried through in the community service years we do in South Africa today.  Dr Ayres was also always very hands-on  with her students, with them in therapy rather than in her office.

She modelled collaboration with the child, handing the locus of control to them, either to do something they couldn’t do, or thought they couldn’t do.  She provided scaffolding: “Sometimes scaffolding means waiting, even if it’s excruciating, to give the child that internal locus of control” – SSR. “It requires of us to expect a little more, within their capacity.” “Scaffolding is the stepping stone to an adaptive response” – AvJ.

Dr Ayres was a firm believer in explaining Sensory Integration challenges to the child as well as the family.  She believed that when you reframed the problem, the solution was different.  She explained that the clinician had to believe that the child was always trying their best within their capacity.

Dr Ayres as the creator of new equipment

Dr Ayres had an art degree, and was an elegant seamstress, leading to her dreaming up and creating much of her own equipment.  She would ask herself, “What could I make that would give this child…[e.g. inverted rotary vestibular input]?”  She used to ride on the scooterboard for 20 minutes each day, and believed the platform swing was the most versatile piece of equipment, as it has so many affordances for praxis.  She could bring the ropes closer together to make it more unstable, or place a piece of carpet on it for incidental tactile input.  She constantly trying to increase the influence of gravity during her sessions, as she felt the otoliths were easier to target than the saccule.

SSR felt that if Dr Ayres were still with us, she would have loved the affordances of lycra and spandex, and the multiple ways that they can be used. SSR mentioned that her three favourite items are lycra, a square platform swing with a tyre, and a big foam wedge.

Dr Ayres as a mentor

Dr Ayres listened intently and was very sensitive to body language. She (JA) said “It takes every ounce of energy I have, to focus on everything I need to do, to do what I need to, for that child.”  She helped the therapists under her supervision to pause, get quiet, and get out of the child’s way.  She (JA) explained that children needed time to process, and that their therapists needed to give them that opportunity.

Dr Ayres motivated her students to pursue excellence in research, and tasked them to move forward to high level goals.  Her graduates have gone on to continue her work in solid theoretical foundations, systematic data collection, publications and peer reviews.  She planted seeds for them to nurture: giving lectures, publishing newsletters and establishing research divisions.  She maintained that thorough testing was so important, as well as assuring access to adequate play spaces for all children. And she asserted the importance of Sensory Hygiene throughout the lifespan.

When asked “When should you start looking at Sensory Integration in the child?” she (JA) answered “At about 8 weeks gestation.” And when asked why, she replied, “Well, it takes a few weeks to figure out that you’re pregnant!”

There were so many “gems” throughout the webinar, and I hope that you will take the time to watch the full recording.  SAISI would also like to extend our sincere appreciation to Dr Susanne Smith-Roley, for the way in which she has mentored, and continues to mentor, SAISI and its members over the years.

I would like to close with the following inspirational quote from Dr Ayres: “If you are willing to put in the work, the reward will be magnificent, because the children will change in front of your eyes”