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Whether stimulating the senses or aiding relaxation, multi-sensory rooms offer real opportunities for learning

The use of multi-sensory rooms in the field of learning disability has been prevalent since the early 1990s when Hutchinson (1991) wrote about the experiences of using the multi-sensory philosophy in a hospital for people with learning disabilities in England. The concept had begun in the Netherlands in the late 1970s with the work of Hulsegge & Verheul (1987) when they introduced the concept of the  snoozelen room (the word “snoozelen” was later adopted and copyrighted by ROMPA).

The involvement of our team, the Learning Disability Nursing Teaching Team at the University of Wolverhampton, with the world of multi-sensory rooms started in the late 1990s when we first purchased some equipment to use with the student nurses on our courses. In the early days, our equipment was wheeled around campus on a mobile unit which would then fill rooms with light and activity; not surprisingly, everyone called it the TARDIS.

When our school of health building was redesigned seven years ago, we had the opportunity to build upon the small amount of equipment we had and place it in a designated room. The rationale for our multi-sensory room was to ensure that the space was user friendly and accessible but also that it was a learning environment. To this end, the room does not have all of the usual additions, such as covered electric sockets, because the essence is to teach learning disability student nurses to be aware of potential dangers within the environment.

Finding inspiration in a sensory room. Photo courtesy of Experia: www.experia-innovations.co.ukUsing the sensory room

The words most frequently used by people entering our multi-sensory room for the first time are “wow”, “beautiful” and “wonderful”, all of which tend to be accompanied by excited laughter. With student learning disability nurses we work on the Gestalt (whole) approach which involves them initially being exposed to the room with all the equipment switched on. This really provides the wow factor and is usually followed by a rush to find the most comfortable place to sit and view the room. During the first session, students absorb the effects of the room and are informed of the historical origins of such environments.

Subsequent multi-sensory sessions enable the students to explore the various pieces of equipment individually. It is important for them to understand each piece of equipment’s use, the effects it produces and issues relating to upkeep and maintenance. By using a bubble tube, for example, the student is able to see its potential to contribute to relaxation, enjoyment and a range of specific activities. The use of the equipment to check a service user’s ability to hear, see and track objects, and to gauge the pleasure they get from it, can also form a vital part of the assessment process. Multi-sensory rooms are also very useful for exploring individuals’ communication skills.

A relaxing environment

A young person who uses a wheelchair and has profound and multiple learning disabilities visits our sensory room on a regular basis. When he began visiting the room, he had a student learning disability nurse on placement who accompanied him each time. The young person has severe cerebral palsy and associated uncontrolled body movements.

During his first visit, he was hoisted out of his wheelchair and given the freedom of the room to explore. He settled on lying next to the bubble tubes. When he entered the room, his muscles twitched and moved involuntarily all the time. However, after an hour of chatting (he used non-verbal communication to chat) and lying under a duvet full of light plastic balls, his body relaxed and his involuntary movements were greatly reduced until, eventually, they ceased altogether. This was amazing to witness and his care staff later reported that the effect had lasted for a further five hours after leaving the room.

Sensory rooms can also be great places for staff training. On one occasion, a school’s whole staff team visited our sensory room to find out about the equipment and to understand the multi-sensory experience. Following the session, the team’s manager said that she was amazed at the level of communication between the team members whilst working in the room. She jokingly suggested booking the room for their monthly team meetings as she felt it would be more productive in the sensory room that in their usual venue.

Room for learning

Richard Hirstwood (Hirstwood & Gray, 1995) built upon the work of Howard Gardner (1973) to develop his philosophy that multi-sensory approaches have much to offer all learners. Gardner wrote about multiple intelligences and began to assert the concept that everyone learns differently; some learners favour their visual sense, some are tactile learners and others are kinaesthetic learners. As Gardner concludes, every person is unique and learns utilising a mixture of these approaches.

Pagliano (2001) stated that, from an educational perspective, students learn to use their senses and then go onto generalise these experiences to other learning opportunities. Pagliano’s idea seems to be borne out by the experiences of our service users, carers and students, who exhibit behaviours which can be observed to show development and learning. Importantly, our student learning disability nurses also go on to demonstrate a greater comprehension of the potential effectiveness of using the sensory skills they have learnt through their practice in the sensory room across a wide range of activities.
The multi-sensory room plays a pivotal role in the Gestalt approach we take to the education of our learning disability nurses. Our next step is to further develop a research methodology which will enable us to capture and record as much as possible of the valuable data that working in such a vibrant and stimulating environment can provide.

Further information

This article was produced by Lynne Westwood with her colleagues Peter Eggison, Veronica Jackson, Steve Neville-Wu and Michael Welsh in the Learning Disability Nursing Team at the University of Wolverhampton:

Lynne Westwood
Author: Lynne Westwood

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