Sense-ational Success

Susan
Shaffer
Multi-Sensory Environment Helps Children with Autism Reach Therapeutic and Educational Goals

Ian Wright with Therapist Kathryn WolfeImagine a room filled with soothing music, where swirls of color dance around the walls, rich scents fill the air and chairs vibrate in time with the music you've chosen. Welcome to the multi-sensory environment (MSE), a room that heightens sensory experience and awareness, induces relaxation, relieves anxiety and promotes interaction and learning. Appealing to just about anyone, the rooms can actually play a part in the therapy of individuals with disabilities including autism, Alzheimer's disease, brain injury, cognitive challenges, severe pain and even high blood pressure.

Research has shown that these rooms can be particularly beneficial for children with disabilities, who can become more alert and interactive in highly stimulating environments. Now, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, students in Kennedy Krieger's Lifeskills and Education for Students with Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders Program (LEAP) have a specially-designed multi-sensory environment they can visit every day.

Students visit the MSE to pursue a variety of objectives, all of which support learning. Some students respond to the safe and calm environment with more relaxed breathing and attentiveness and are able to learn new skills without the frustration and negative behaviors that occur in a more crowded and noisy classroom environment. Some students demonstrate increased vocalization, interpersonal interaction and choice-making in the room. Others are able to select a visit to the room as a reward for positive behaviors.

The Occupational Therapy department in LEAP, an intense, year-round program that focuses on increasing students' communication and independent living skills, identifies students who may benefit from visits to the MSE. The students are then evaluated to determine their sensory preferences in general and their responses to specific sensory stimuli in the MSE. The staff is trained in use of the equipment, techniques to promote relaxation and trust and individualized protocols that benefit each student. Professionals (including behavior resource specialists, educators, speech therapists and music therapists) have also used the MSE to promote attentiveness and learning skills in students at LEAP.

For some students, their response to the MSE is immediate and dramatic. When Steven*, a nonverbal student easily overwhelmed by novelty, noise, verbal demands and academic challenges, first entered the MSE, he became fascinated with the bubble column, the mirror, the colorful, moving bubbles of light on the wall and the vibration chair. Initially, Steven became giggly or angry or drowsy during the course of a session. Gradually, his time in the MSE allowed him to reach a state of quiet alertness where he began to choose among the available pieces of equipment using photographs. Eventually, he began to accept new fine motor and academic challenges presented to him while in the room, without his usual frustration, and carried over his new skills to the classroom.

The MSE is just one example of the many ways LEAP personnel are working to help students with autism spectrum disorders reach their goals. But the progress shown in Steven and many of his schoolmates proves that creativity, flexibility and regard for students needs and choices can make a remarkable difference in their ability to learn.

*Names have been changed to protect the family's privacy