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School sensory rooms offer calming, fun outlet for students with special needs

03/15/2015 Lancaster Online By Kara Newhouse

“About three minutes on your timer, buddy,” an adult tells 11-year-old Anthony Reyes as he spins on a large swing.

Before his time runs out, Anthony crawls into a lightweight play tunnel.

“I feel warm, and I also feel like a worm,” he says, peering out of the colorful, springy tube.

The fourth-grader is taking a break from his Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 class in the building’s sensory room.

The space features equipment not often found in regular classrooms, such as a mini-trampoline, weighted blankets, a keyboard and a body sock (basically a large piece of spandex). The items are used by students with autism, emotional disorders or other special needs when overwhelmed, or as a reward for positive behavior.

Sensory rooms have been gaining popularity nationwide in the last decade and are catching on in local schools, too. In addition to IU13’s sensory room, seven of Lancaster County’s 17 public school districts have such spaces in one or more of their buildings.


The sensory room concept originated in a 1970s Dutch philosophy called Snoezelen, according to Disability Scoop, a disability news website.Kevin Alequin, 9, in the sensory room at IU13's Valley Road school site in Manheim Township.

The word Snoezelen combines two Dutch words meaning explore and relax. Researchers who developed the idea believed that atmosphere and behavior were intimately connected.

Linda Messbauer, an occupational therapist who designed the U.S.’s first sensory room in 1992, agreed.

“Kids are influenced by their environment, and they want to control as much of it as they can. The room helps them learn to control behavior through understanding and using their sensory diet,” she told Disability Scoop in December.

Experts estimate that sensory rooms used in therapeutic settings can cost up to $1 million, but local schools say they have spent about $3,000 to $5,000 for setting up theirs. Many have been paid for through grants, according to district officials.

Breaks and rewards

Bill Piser, an IU13 autism support teacher, says his students experience the world differently from others.

“A light that doesn’t seem very bright to you and I might be incredibly bright to them and very distracting. “

Students at IU13 and other schools head to the sensory rooms when they’re distracted, frustrated or upset.

“We have a student who’s often very in need of pressure or squeezes,” says Piser. “For him to be able to come in here and go under a weighted blanket, that can help him self-regulate. Allowing him to have that for a few minutes, he’s able to go back over to a work table.”

Sometimes children may have sensory room visits built into their schedule as rewards for completing tasks.

“That gives them the control they need to go back and attend a task for the next work session,” says Bonnie Rudi, an IU13 site supervisor.

Coming a long way

Denise Rhodes, a Solanco mom, says she’s grateful the sensory room exists for her son, who is 10 and has Down syndrome.

Walking through the room at Providence Elementary, Rhodes points out a selection of balls on a shelf. It includes a rubber ball covered in small nubs and one the size of a volleyball but covered with tennis ball fuzz.

“Tyler hates textures, and I believe him being in school and having a sensory room has helped him overcome that,” says Rhodes.

Tyler’s life skills class visits the room twice a day, according to Solanco’s special education director.

“Tyler has come a long way. If he didn’t have a sensory room, I think that would be a hindrance to him,” Rhodes said.

During the sensory room visits, students practice activities recommended by physical and occupational therapists. For example, children with limited mobility can lay on the board swing on their stomachs to exercise abdominal muscles.

While a sensory room may not be a fix-all, it certainly helps schools to have one, Piser said.

“It’s not a miracle pill. Some days there’s just a lot of other distracting things, but it’s definitely a great option.”

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