Feeding the senses

PCS Sensory room

Sensory rooms offer untold opportunities for stimulation, communication and social interaction

For the young people at our school, all of whom have autism and many of whom have sensory processing difficulties, the multi-sensory room is a vital resource. They need just the right amount of sensory stimulation to enable them to learn to organise sensory information and to re-establish an understanding of their bodies’ sensory experiences without overload. This can help inhibit and filter out unwanted stimuli, register and process stimuli correctly and regulate sensations accurately, in order to encourage appropriate behaviour.

For young people who have difficulties processing everyday sensory information, this can have a profound effect on their life and on their ability to access learning. They may have difficulties controlling their responses to external stimuli or may seek out more of these sensations. Sensory information is received but not processed or perceived normally, resulting in the absence or intensification of one or all of the senses to a degree where everyday life is disrupted. For example, hyper-sensitivity (over-sensitivity) may cause a sensation of pain from clothing rubbing against skin, an inability to tolerate normal lighting in a room or a dislike of being touched (especially light touch). Hypo-sensitivity (under-sensitivity) may cause a pupil to be self-injurious where they are seeking to experience touch, create loud noises by banging items together or rocking vigorously.

The multi-sensory room provides a specialised space which can be easily adapted to control the sensory input and to vary the stimuli received through a number of the senses. It can be an interesting and motivating, calm or stimulating (but not over-stimulating) environment, depending on the young person’s needs.

A world of sensation

Multi-sensory rooms can make use of different lighting, music facilities, tactile areas and a wealth of equipment, including fibre optics, projectors and musical keyboards which can be activated by the pupil using switches, pressure, sound or movement. The choice of equipment used will vary according to the needs of the individual or group accessing the room, and also the aims of the session. Weighted blankets and massage may also be useful to provide additional sensory stimulus or relaxation. 

A wide range of equipment and techniques can be employed in multi-sensory rooms to provide different types of stimuli, for example:

  • visual input (sight) – lights, bubble tubes/wall, projectors, UV patterns and/or fibre-optics. Multi-sensory rooms typically have black out blinds in order for these to have full effect
  • auditory input (sound) – calming music, such as meditation music or classical music played very softly. Cause and effect buttons can be used to make music play
  • tactile input (touch) – hard and soft surfaces, as well as structured messy play sessions
  • olfactory input (smell): very mild, sparingly used scents and aromas, or gently scented lotion used in messy play
  • proprioceptive input – vibrating surfaces and equipment and small spaces to crawl into. These can help stimulate a sense of body awareness and can be calming
  • vestibular input (movement and balance) – unstable or dynamic equipment to balance on or suspended equipment such as swings. Careful supervision is needed here, as such equipment can have an alarming effect.

Small, portable sensory spaces can also be used in classes and other areas to support individual student needs throughout the day. For example, students experiencing the sensory overload of the classroom could choose to withdraw to a small, darkened tent containing soft cushions. 

Sensory circuit sessions can offer young people a structured pattern of activities which are designed to facilitate firstly alerting activities, then organising and finally calming activities. The right sensory diet can offer a balanced schedule of calming versus stimulating activities, including gross motor sessions with things such as trampettes or gym balls, and communication sessions where students choose items from sensory boxes in class. Such activities allow students to regularly and consistently access vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile stimuli.

Feel the benefits

Most young people with autism experience difficulties with communication and social interaction, whether they communicate through verbal language or by other means. For these children, sensory items and activities are highly motivating and therefore create useful opportunities for them to initiate and take part in communication. Students can request a piece of equipment to be switched on or off, giving them control over their environment and opportunities to communicate. Structured schedules can encourage students to explore a wider use of the equipment and also support students and staff with opportunities for increased intensive interaction. 

Sensory rooms can also be used to enhance sensory stories linked to the overall curriculum, and carry out communication activities through using choice and intensive interaction approaches; here, the student and staff member engage in a turn-taking process led by the student where the staff member focusses on, and responds to, the reactions of the student. This encourages communication through the use of facial expressions, eye gaze, vocalisations, gesture, body movements, pointing and speech. By moving around the multi-sensory room and exploring the different sensory stimuli, the student will demonstrate a number of reactions which can be copied and responded to by the staff member, which in turn encourages the student to react to gain the feedback response from the staff member.

In the failure-free environment of a multi-sensory room, students are able to learn to interact with their surroundings in a safe and non-threatening way – exploring, learning, understanding and communicating more using all of their senses. Although outcomes vary from person to person, sensory rooms can help to reduce distress, challenging or self-injurious behaviour and some of the stereo-typical behaviours often associated with autism. Multi-sensory environments can support students to regulate their alertness levels throughout the day to ensure that they can focus on making use of learning experiences.

Further information

Lana Bestbier is an occupational therapist and Joann Hurst a speech and language therapist at Prior’s Court residential school for children and young people with autism and moderate to severe learning difficulties:

JoAnn Hurst
Author: JoAnn Hurst

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