Sensory rooms for child behaviour therapy

Multisensory rooms in the US provide havens where therapists can work with students with special needs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 November, 2014, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 November, 2014, 5:23pm

In the dimly lit room, Tiara Santos lounges on the beanbag, stares at the bubble tubes and plays with glow-in-the-dark toys, and then slowly, the demeanour of the girl with autism begins to transform.

"Before we came in here, she was hard to control," says Tiara's teacher, Danielle Galambos. "Here, she feels safe. She is quieter, more relaxed."

Tiara is in a sensory room at the Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, New Jersey. It was designed to stimulate neglected physiology in disabled students. In Tiara's case, it brings a smile, as well as some calm.

For students with disabilities, such rooms - also called multisensory rooms, tranquility rooms, or relaxation rooms - provide a much-needed haven.

A growing number of sensory rooms are cropping up nationwide, including at the Phoenix Centre, a private school in Nutley, New Jersey, for children with severe disabilities, which built a room with the help of a grant from Seton Hall University.

Generally, those who use the rooms do not have to pay for sessions unless they are in private therapy.

The rooms can cost up to US$1 million to create, depending on equipment, but can be funded through grants.

The concept of the room is based on a 1970s Dutch philosophy called Snoezelen, from two Dutch words meaning to explore and relax. The researchers believed that atmosphere affects behaviour. The rooms were initially used to provide special environments for young people with disabilities. These days, the rooms are used for people with a broad spectrum of conditions, including dementia, autism, brain injuries and those in palliative care.

Linda Messbauer, an occupational therapist from Queens, New York ,who designed and opened the first sensory room in the US in 1992, says the benefits of these rooms are backed up by good scientific trends and research.

"Kids are influenced by their environment, and they want to control as much of it as they can. The room helps kids learn to control their behaviour through understanding and using their sensory diet," Messbauer says. "You dim the lights, making the room darker, and it tells the child's nervous system that it should start to produce melatonin and this starts the calming process.

"What is happening is causing more areas of the brain to be functional and to be pulled into the process, causing a change, usually bringing about more focus and attention. These rooms help them learn how to control themselves."

Andrew Smith-Hinson, 18, a student at the Felician School who has behavioural issues, says he looks forward to going to the sensory room, where it's easier to calm down and open up about his problems. "When I'm frustrated, it relaxes me," he says.

Pointing at the colourful fish projected onto a wall, he says: "I like seeing those fishes going in a circle. It helps take my mind off stuff."

Messbauer estimates there are now 2,000 rooms across the US that have been built by therapists.

These rooms help them learn how to control themselves
Linda Messbauer, occupational therapist

Tom Marshal, a director at Southpaw Enterprises, a manufacturer based in Ohio that designs sensory rooms, says he has worked on more than 400 in schools and residential facilities across the country.

The rooms are used for Alzheimer's and dementia sufferers, but his company has seen an uptick in use among children in recent years because of the increase in autism diagnoses.

In the seven years since the room opened at the Felician School, therapists there have found that it has helped calm students who have disabilities, says principal Patricia Urgo. "It's a quiet, calming place where the kids can choose what devices they want switched on," she says, adding that students find it comforting to know they always have "a place to go" if they need to calm down.

The room can either have the effect of stimulating or relaxing a child, depending on the devices that are used. "I used it for kids whose behaviour was interfering with their academic progress," says Urgo. For students who can't calm themselves, the therapist dims the lights, puts on soft music and allows them to jump on the soft furniture.

Students who are lethargic and need to be more alert face bright lights, loud music and devices that they can control in the room. Urgo says she observed they were able to focus better in class after time spent in the room.

At the Phoenix Centre, students come in for 30-minute sessions with a therapist. It has been shown to decrease aggressive behaviour.

Studies also indicate that extended sessions in a multisensory environment lead to an increase in students' self-regulation, says Julie Mower, principal of the Phoenix Centre.

The music and lights in the rooms are often matched to the energy level of the student, says Gail Stocks, occupational therapist at the Phoenix Centre. "Gradually, all the sensory experiences are modulated to bring the student to an equilibrium," she says.

She often begins with dim lights and soft music and concludes the session with bright lights and louder music so that the child is better focused.

The teachers have reported that the 20 students who use the room are returning to class afterwards with less aggressive behaviour, says Stocks. Tribune News Service