Jo Grace on multisensory rooms and why ‘getting it’ as a practitioner is vital to success.

Multisensory rooms are places of magic and myth. I have witnessed the magic in my work with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. I remember times when a person, ordinarily so passive, has reached out in the darkness of a multisensory room to try and touch the bubbles dancing in the bubble tube. I have seen autistic children stressed from the busy social environment of the school find calm within the rooms. Yes it is true that the rooms are magic.

Pillowcases and Pringle tubes
But it is also true that the rooms are surrounded by myths. In 2018 I conducted a piece of research that looked at how the rooms are used, to identify the characteristics of a good sensory room and the barriers to effective practice. In doing this work, it was necessary for me to review the research that surrounds multisensory rooms. These have existed for well over fifty years, so you would expect there to be a strong evidence base; I was surprised to find that this is not the case. These researchers sum it up well: “The evidence we have about the effectiveness of multi-sensory rooms universally lacks the scientific rigour required to be counted as significant.”. “There is a lot of research to indicate that positive effects may be triggered by MSR (multi-sensory rooms), but much of this is methodologically weak, whereas stronger studies conclude no effect or even a negative effect.”.

However, if you were to have the kinds of experiences that I have had in multisensory rooms, then you will not doubt their capacity for magic; but it is when we consider the concept of ‘value’ that we have cause to stop and think. Value is something most of us have to consider: funds are limited, budgets are tight. If I think of those moments of wonder, those remarkable moments of calm or engagement, I can think of comparable moments, of equal wonder, intense engagement, and deep calm triggered by the presence of light dancing across a piece of tin foil, the weight of a pillowcase full of sand placed on a lap or the scent of some herbs from my garden smooshed inside a washed out Pringles tube by the help of a dryer ball. In other words, triggered by interactions that are significantly cheaper than a multisensory room.

Why the magic doesn’t happen
Over the years, the price of multisensory rooms has rocketed. Early on, a super fancy room would cost about a thousand pounds or so, and now it is possible to enter rooms whose price tags fall in the millions. Researchers warn that with the dawning of immersive multi-sensory rooms, (rooms with multi walled projections and interactive surfaces), we are about to see a repeat of the research errors of the past, with substantive claims being made on the back of little to no actual evidence for their veracity. Progress will once again be driven by the available technology, rather than by the abilities and needs of the users of the rooms.

I was particularly shocked by the lack of research underpinning the use of multisensory rooms, because Ofsted now call for “evidenced-based practice,” and the DFE specify multisensory rooms as a part of adequate provision for people with learning disabilities (DFE BB104) and one has to wonder what they are basing this specification on, in the absence of a strong body of research, even after fifty plus years of practice. If we are looking for value, are they the most cost effective resource, in terms of space, time, and many people’s involvement and commitment?

Not all hours are created equal
The research I conducted yielded some interesting results in terms of the effectiveness of the rooms, with their capacity to be effective often being thwarted in simple ways. Many settings already have fabulous multisensory rooms installed, so my question about their being worth the financial outlay was no longer relevant. The current concern focussed on how to ensure that they were being used as effectively as possible. For example, the timetabling of the rooms was often mentioned as a significant factor. Sometimes this was simply done: a sign up sheet with hour slots was taped to the door of the room and teachers picked their slot, or hours were allocated so that everyone had the same amount. One teacher remarked to me, “The sensory room is the only time my learners truly get to engage with their learning.” The teacher’s opinion was that it was not fair that her students had only one hour a week in their optimum learning environment, compared to the 30 hours per week other learners in that setting had in environments in which they were able to learn. Other more practical observations included comments along the lines of, “There’s no point in going if you get the slot before home time”. All hours are not equal, and all children’s need for time in a sensory room is not equal. To be making the most effective use of a sensory room, timetabling needs to be a more precise art, involving negotiation and consideration.

Other barriers to effective practice included the rooms being used as seclusion spaces to hold children in crisis, resources within the rooms being broken and the unaffordable maintenance contracts sold by the installers of the rooms. Much as when you buy a cheap printer and later realise the ink is very expensive, rooms were being sold with mandatory maintenance contracts that schools were not able to afford.

When everyone gets it
My research entered a second phase, when I realised that at the heart of it all was a very particular issue. Time and time again, as I interviewed people, they would remark that even if they had the expensive equipment, the right slot on the timetable, and everything in place, the resource was still ineffective if the personnel managing the session were not engaged and committed to the experience. When I worked as a special school teacher, I received training annually on how to operate the sensory room. There are excellent courses that will show you a wide range of inspiring activities to do in a sensory room. If you know how to operate it, if you have a great lesson plan, but the person implementing it doesn’t “get it” then what? … Well, then all the magic goes to waste. People are taught how to operate sensory rooms but not how to use them. Can you teach someone how to “get it?”

The second phase of my research explored what “getting it” meant, and how we might enable someone to “get it”. Notice I have not defined what “get it” means, but I expect you instinctively know.

The magic of multisensory rooms is there, but you will not find it in the bubble tube or in the 4D immersive lighting. The magic lies in the people who share the rooms. It did at their inception and it does now. How we go about fostering that magic should concern us far more than which exciting gadget we can purchase from the catalogue.

Joanna Grace
Author: Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace
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Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Doctoral Researcher, Author, Trainer and Founder of The Sensory Projects.

Twitter: @jo3grace
Facebook: @JoannaGraceTSP
LinkedIn: @joannagracethesensoryprojects


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