Multi-sensory environments provide invaluable opportunities for personal development and empowerment, and they can play a vital role in the curriculum
The concept of the multi-sensory room, or “Snoezelen” room, as it is also known, was first developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The original idea was to develop activities which enhanced the sensory experiences of people with complex support needs, primarily focusing on relaxation. The multi-sensory room is designed to block out noise and light to focus on using multi-sensory equipment to artificially control light, sound and temperature for the stimulation of the senses. The concept has developed over the years and now encompasses a range of environments that offer sensory-based stimulation, including high or low-tech multi-sensory rooms and portable multi-sensory trolleys with equipment, as well as areas such as multi-sensory gardens and playgrounds.
Benefits of a multi-sensory room in special education
In the context of special education, multi-sensory environments can, in addition to engendering a pleasant form of relaxation which promotes well-being, be used to develop the ability to focus and develop new skills, particularly for pupils with complex support needs. I work in a school for disabled children and young people between levels P1 to P5, and our aim is to provide person-centred activities within a themed curriculum to enable pupils to have fun in learning. We have found that, when tailored to the needs of an individual pupil, a multi-sensory environment can provide the stimulus to increase attention levels and involvement, and help to build confidence and social skills.
The most important consideration when using any multi-sensory environment is to create a responsive environment for each person. It is not considered good practice to simply switch on all the equipment at once, as this creates sensory overload with no focus on the individual and can be highly distressing for the user. The best approach is to look at who is going to use the room and why and then assess individual responses to a few stimuli at a time. Once a pupil has found their “wow factor”, with the type of equipment that really engages them, they are likely to become more motivated and focused. From this starting point, it is possible to plan purposeful sensory programmes.
We have created small multi-sensory areas within some classrooms which are curtained to create a room for pupils with visual impairments. The pupils have sensory programmes written for their particular needs and visual stimuli are provided through the use of ultra violet light to view art work and fluorescent colours. Light effects from a projector wheel can be projected on to gold or silver reflective surfaces and/or materials to develop visual awareness and attention skills and/or tracking skills, depending on the pupil’s programme. Objects related to curriculum themes can also be used for colour and light, contrast and clarity.
We also have a multi-sensory studio which is used as a multi-purpose room for individual sensory assessment or group activity work. It includes multi-sensory equipment, such as bubble tubes, fibre optics and a sound effects unit, which can be used to create visual, auditory and tactile sensory stimuli. These enable pupils with sensory impairments to experience heightened sensory awareness, and can be used to plan sensory themed activities within curriculum learning areas. Multi-sensory approaches to lesson planning, involving drama and stories within the studio, can be set up for a term at a time around themes such as “journeys through outer space” and “under the sea stories”. Within these activities, pupils can follow and develop their individual aims and sensory programmes, either for quiet focused time or for intense exciting sensory stimulation.
Henry, aged eighteen, is a young man with complex support needs, including cerebral palsy and visual impairment, who loves his visits to the multi-sensory studio at our school. His favourite activity is finding areas of light and reflection in his environment. He communicated clearly with staff members, through his vocalisations and body language, when he found his “wow factor” in the multi-sensory studio during drama sessions. Henry explored, through using his vision and tactile awareness, the bright light stimulation of fibre optics, with their changing colours, and the infinity tunnel, with its intense light and colours, which can be switch controlled. Henry found the changes from dark to light and from red to yellow to be the most visually stimulating, and he began to focus his visual attention for longer periods of time by pressing the switch to control the light and colour changes. He responded with smiles and vocalisations in interaction with his helper.
During sessions in the studio, Henry began to take control of the colour programme he wanted from a choice of five, and made this choice known to his helper via vocalisations. In many of the class drama and story sessions Henry took the lead role of turning on the bright infinity lights as part of the story. Henry also found that this activity helped to calm him after he was upset or anxious. He sometimes uses the studio for quiet sessions with his helper and he began learning about taking turns at pressing the switch to control the lights. After several months of this activity, Henry began to communicate through his vocalisations in more general situations to express his preferences. Henry’s ability to focus increased substantially; he went from focusing his visual attention for a few minutes at a time, to up to an hour of focused visual and tactile concentration.
In terms of sensory assessment, Henry developed his skills from those of awareness and attention to include the abilities to locate his choice of equipment, recognise the programme he preferred and learn how to use the switch to control the lights. He also understood when it was his role to control the lights in a class activity. As Henry’s story demonstrates, multi-sensory environments can have an immense value in terms of personal development and empowerment.
Personalised planning, training and procedures
It is important for staff in a multi-sensory environment to work together as a team on assessment and planning for pupils with complex support needs. We use a summary multidisciplinary team assessment sheet, which summarises all professional reports, in order to share information and involve parents. This team work helps with the planning of sensory programmes and with planning personal goals for each pupil. It is also useful to have a school multi-sensory policy which can be included in staff training.
Recording stories such as Henry’s, with video or photographs, can provide an invaluable record of how to use multi-sensory environments effectively and appropriately for the benefit of pupils. Such records can also be inspirational for teachers and other staff member and can help them to understand how to interact with pupils in the most effective way.
Suzanne Little is a specialist teacher at Meldreth Manor School, which is run by disability charity Scope: