The human brain is designed to produce and regulate responses to the body’s sensory experiences — those things we touch, see, smell, taste and hear. This link between the brain and our behavior is called “sensory integration.” For most people, this is a normal and typically overlooked part of their daily experience. But for an individual with a developmental disorder, including autism, the way the brain processes these experiences can be a major source of distress and discomfort.
In some cases, the brain may over-react to these sensory stimuli. Other times, it may not react enough. A person’s sensory experiences go beyond the basic five senses and can negatively stimulate some deeper sensory responses, known as the tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems.
“Tactile” refers to the experience of touch, including textures, detecting hot and cold temperatures, moisture and pain. “Vestibular” is the sensory system that controls balance and movement, including auditory processing and visual development — a.k.a., sight and sound. The third system — “proprioceptive” — includes all muscles and joints, which means it influences a variety of bodily functions, including needing to use the bathroom and feelings of being hungry.
An inability to regulate certain sensory stimuli from any or all of these systems is called “sensory processing disorder.” In many cases, it can cause a variety of negative behaviors, such as acting out, fighting, meltdowns, spinning, rocking or hand-flapping, as well as problems with information processing and development.
So what is a parent or caregiver to do?
One increasingly popular method of treating and overcoming sensory problems is the use of a sensory room. These “safe” spaces are designed to provide a place for individuals with sensory issues to decompress and confront a variety of sensory issues in a way that will ultimately help them learn to cope with seemingly normal experiences.
What Is a Sensory Room?
A sensory room is a space designed to help an individual with sensory issues learn to regulate their brain’s negative reactions to external stimuli by developing coping skills for these experiences. In some cases, it may be a whole room, or it can simply be a space set aside in a corner of a larger room. The contents and design of a sensory room or space can — and should be tailored to each individual’s needs because each person with extreme sensory issues will be dealing with different stimuli and have different requirements when it comes to learning to cope with the world around them.
Also known as a “multi-sensory room,” these safe spaces have been in use since the 1970s, but now that one in 59 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, the need for them is greater than ever. The concepts behind a sensory room have been used by occupational therapists (OTs) for years, but the benefits of a sensory room are so great that more and more people are creating them in their homes or schools as well.
Creating a multi-sensory environment in a home or at school can be an ideal way to continue the same benefits of occupational therapy at home. It also allows your loved one to have more consistent access to the same therapies and soothing methods. Rather than waiting for an appointment, your loved one can simply go into another room of their home or down the hall at school to reap the benefits.
While many people are familiar with the use of sensory rooms for those on the autism spectrum, they can also be utilized for individuals with ADHD, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, as well as for individuals with a variety of developmental challenges in the area of communication, movement and balance, and social skills.
Why Create a Sensory Room or Space?
Individuals with all of the conditions listed above often struggle to cope with the world around them. Loud noises, bright lights, rough patterns or foods with unwelcome textures are just some of the things that can cause distress. Because their condition can magnify seemingly small sensory encounters, they are prone to meltdowns, tantrums or negative attempts at self-soothing.
How does a sensory room help? It can provide a place for an individual with special needs to go when a meltdown occurs. But, it’s not just a place for a time-out. While it can be a calm space where they can regain control of their emotions, a sensory room can also provide a low-stress, fun environment for an individual to work through their emotions and reactions to certain stimuli.
While they can’t necessarily take away their brain’s sensitivity to certain stimuli, they can train their brain to overcome its sensitivity and develop coping mechanisms that will serve them well in the world beyond their sensory space.
Sensory Room Benefits and Effectiveness
What are the benefits of sensory play? When an individual with autism or another developmental challenge has access to a sensory room, they can and will experience a variety of benefits. Those benefits, however, will likely vary for each individual because each person has different sensitivities and ways of reacting to them. But, even though individuals may experience sensory rooms in unique ways, they still provide a variety of benefits for both children and adults of all ages, such as:
1. Calming Effects
Negative reactions to sensory experiences can cause distress for both children and adults. When they get agitated, spending time in a dim, calming room where they can be alone and take charge of their emotions is a huge benefit. A sensory room may contain a white noise machine, an aromatherapy diffuser or a variety of other soothing items designed to help them regain control of their emotions.
In some cases, your loved one may need additional sensory stimulation to encourage feelings of awareness and well-being. For these individuals, a sensory space may contain specially-designed toys or items that allow them to become more aware of their senses and explore how these play out in the world around them.
While some individuals may benefit from using a sensory room alone, sensory rooms can also provide places for them to practice interacting with others. This may be especially true of a sensory room used within the school setting. In these cases, the idea is to provide a safe, stress-free space that allows children to move and explore together, especially in rooms where they can practice becoming more aware of how their bodies move and controlling those movements when they are around others.
4. Improved Focus
Individuals with autism, ADHD or other developmental disorders are often distracted, and they struggle to pay attention to what’s going on around them. A sensory room can help them increase awareness of their surroundings and learn to cope with real-life situations where concentration is required, such as in the classroom or the workplace.
5. Motor Skills Development
Because muscle movement and balance can be a major challenge for those with sensory issues, providing a safe space to hone fine motor skills and practice movement can be beneficial. Equipment that encourages bouncing, jumping or even core stabilizing activities can help promote this.
6. Cognitive Development
While sensory rooms won’t rewire the brain, they can be instrumental in teaching your loved one how to process experiences and cope in situations where their reactions might otherwise become extreme. For those with autism, it’s also a great way to help them explore cause and effect as they learn about how their actions influence the world around them.
7. Sensory Development
By creating a sensory space in your home, your loved one can explore their senses — and their brain’s reaction to those experiences — in a safe, stress-free environment. By exposing them to the brain’s complex reactions to things they touch or hear, motor skills and balance, as well as their muscle functions, they can learn how to process and control those experiences when they are away from home.
Creating Sensory Spaces in Homes
Creating a sensory space in your home is a great way to encourage your loved one to explore their senses and develop coping strategies in a place where they feel comfortable and safe. At home, they are relaxed and can make better progress confronting and working through sensory issues.
The great thing about a sensory space is that is doesn’t have to take up an entire room of your home. Sensory spaces can be created in a section of a playroom, bedroom or family room, too — really anywhere you have space to dedicate to your loved one’s needs.
How to Design a Sensory Room
Designing sensory spaces in a home can be challenging, especially if you aren’t sure where to start. To make the process easier, stop and ask yourself a few questions:
1. What Does My Loved One Need?
Everyone is different and will require a different set up in their sensory space depending on their challenges and sensitivities. In some cases, your loved one may need stimulation. Others require calming sensory inputs. Some may need to work on their balance and aversion to loud noises, while others are struggling to hone fine motor skills and a sensitivity to textures.
How you use the space will depend on a variety of factors, including the age of your loved one, their specific triggers and struggles, and the space you have available. Some caregivers set aside a sensory space as a “time-out” area or place where their loved one can calm down when they are over-stimulated or worked up. Others prefer to use the space to develop their loved one’s sensory skills and coping mechanisms to avoid those meltdowns. While both of these are certainly good reasons, it’s important to identify your own reasons for constructing the space. That will help you decide how to design the area and what items you need to include in it.
2. Where Will I Set up the Sensory Space?
A sensory space doesn’t have to be an entire room. However, it should be in an out-of-the-way area of your home that’s not prone to a lot of noise or interruptions. Your loved one should be able to spend time in this area without contending with sounds from the television, toilets flushing or fragments of conversations from other family members. Sensory spaces also work better if they are not near windows so that the lighting can be controlled, particularly if you plan on using special lighting as part of the sensory experience. Because you’ll likely be using artificial lighting in some capacity, you’ll also need to select a spot that has easy access to at least one electrical outlet.
3. What Products Will Best Meet My Loved One’s Needs?
No two home sensory spaces are the same because each one is constructed with your loved one’s specific needs in mind. Once you’ve identified what you’re trying to address, then it’s time to begin shopping for the best sensory products for special needs.
Selecting products to meet your loved one’s requirements can be challenging if you haven’t designed a sensory space before. That’s why working with an experienced company like Enabling Devices can help you through the process. Before you ever begin purchasing products, we offer a design questionnaire that helps them match your needs with products, and we can guide you through the process of designing a sensory space.
Depending on your loved one’s needs, you can choose from a wide variety of items. Examples of some items that might end up in your sensory space include a bean bag chair — or Enabling Devices’ Beanless Bag Chair — bubble mirrors, vibrating toys, fiber optic curtain lighting and activity mats.
4. How Do I Set up a Sensory Space?
Once you have a location for your sensory space and items to fill it, then it’s time to get decorating. Remember that a sensory space is not intended to be a gym or space to do homework. Rather, it’s a place for them to explore and engage with the items in the room. While the space should be fairly open and uncluttered, make sure to provide a place to sit or lay down while they explore and have all of the items in the room at the right height for them to be within easy reach of a child or anyone in a wheelchair. This is especially important if you’re including mirrors since they’ll need to be able to see themselves as they explore.
Also make sure that you, the parent, understand how all the equipment in the sensory room works and how it can help your loved one. Being engaged and informed about their sensory space can help you supervise their time and make sure the space is serving its purpose.
That being said, also remember that a sensory space is a place for your child to explore and experience things without a lot of instruction or interruption. It may go against every parental instinct you have, but for the room to be most effective, stay back and let them decide how to work through the room.
Benefits of Calming Sensory Rooms in Schools
Sensory spaces in schools have been shown to decrease negative behaviors and improve student engagement. The benefits of sensory rooms in schools have led some educators to begin using sensory rooms for groups of students beyond those with a diagnosed sensory processing disorder or developmental disability. Any student who struggles with balance and a sense of where their body is in the area around them can benefit from time in a sensory space. By learning about their bodies and how to control them, these students can develop their muscle control and awareness of what’s around them.
Having sensory rooms within a school can also reduce the need to send students out of the school for additional services. For students who need to work with occupational or physical therapists, these professionals can be brought into the school, rather than students being taken out of class and the school to have these appointments. This maintains consistency in a student’s day and reduces the amount of time they have to be away from school.
In some cases, sensory rooms can also be used for students who have experienced trauma. School counselors and psychologists can and should be consulted on the best way to use these rooms for students in these situations.
Whether your school’s sensory room will accommodate a large student population or a small number, it doesn’t have to be fancy to become an effective part of your instructional programming. Painting the room a relaxing color, putting soft rugs or carpet on the floor and then including a equipment to address a variety of needs is all that’s required for this space to be established.
How to Choose Products for Your Sensory Space
When you’re working on how to create a sensory space, it can be helpful to narrow down your choices of equipment to include in your room. By determining your needs — and how much space you have to work with — you can choose from a wide range of products and designs that will be helpful to you and your loved one.
1. Sensory Products for Calming
If you’re planning to use your sensory room for calming, it’s important to design a space that encourages relaxation and quiet. Some ways to incorporate calm into your space include:
- Sensory lighting: If your room already has windows, then find curtains or shades that can soften the natural light and create a more calming space. If you have a dark space that needs a certain amount of light, select lights that enable you to see but still maintain a soft, calm feeling in the room.
- Aromatherapy: Shown to reduce stress and anxiety, using a diffuser in your sensory space can set the mood and calm your loved one.
- Weighted Clothing or Blankets: The deep pressure these products provide to muscles and joints can help your loved one calm down and relax when they need it the most.
- Chewables: Whether your loved one craves oral stimulation or struggles with oral motor skills, providing sensory input to the mouth, jaw and lips can provide a relaxing experience and help with breath control, muscle tone and lip closure, too.
2. Sensory Products for Auditory Needs
While there are times that your loved one will need peace and quiet, there are other times when sound can provide a calming or focusing effect that can enhance the sensory room experience. Some ways to incorporate items for auditory needs include:
- Compact Activity Center: A compact activity center is a multi-function toy. Among its many features is a music box designed to stimulate sensory and cognitive development.
- Sound Machine: Whether your loved one is soothed by music or white noise, a sound machine or music player of some kind may be helpful in your sensory space.
3. Sensory Products for Vestibular and Motor Skills
Products that encourage balance, muscle strength and improved motor skills are essential components of a sensory room. These may include:
- Donut Balls: These are designed to improve coordination, balance and flexibility. They are similar to exercise balls and improve core strength. They’re also just plain fun!
- Ball Chairs: These chairs can assist a loved one who struggles with sitting still and paying attention. With regular use, they can also improve balance and posture.
- Hanging Chair: This zero-gravity chair is designed to improve gross motor and vestibular functioning.
4. Sensory Products for Tactile Needs
In many cases, you will want to incorporate a variety of tactile experiences into a sensory space, including:
- Textured Therapy Ball: This ball is covered with hundreds of small bumps that increase stimulation while also providing exercise.
- Gel Mats: Gel mats such as this one, combine tactile experiences with improving finger strength and hand-eye coordination.
- Tactile Manipulatives: These items are designed to decrease stress and increase focus and concentration. They can also help your loved one improve their tactile awareness and fine motor skills.
Rarely does an individual with autism or another developmental disorder only struggle in one area. In most cases, your sensory room will include a few items from each of these categories.
Get Expert Assistance in Designing a Sensory Space Today
Many people often wonder if creating a sensory room is a good investment. We would respond with a wholehearted “yes.” Providing your loved one with a safe space to develop and overcome their sensory challenges is an act of love and caring that has been shown to have significant benefits for children and adults.
At Enabling Devices, we are committed to providing products that encourage people of all ages and abilities to live fulfilling, joy-filled lives. Over the last three decades, we have proudly created products that enable individuals with disabilities to function in the world around them. This includes a wide variety of products that work well in sensory spaces. Besides selling products for use in sensory spaces, we also provide sensory room design services to help you create a useful area for your loved one. If you’re ready to incorporate a sensory room into your home or school, we’re ready to help. Browse our wide array of sensory products or contact us today to begin designing your new sensory space!