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The secret of super sensory spaces

June 14 2024

Why do our services create sensory spaces and places for the people we support? We take a look at the theory behind this and how it improves wellness.

Have you ever visited a sensory room? Your first impression might be a feeling of calm, with light and colour in the room and maybe music or other gentle sound. A sensory room can be any size, kitted out with a range of equipment including soft furnishings, colourful lighting, scent, items to touch or hold, music – all of which create a warm environment that boosts wellness, relaxation or stimulation. Several of our residential and education services provide a sensory room, including sensory bathrooms. Why does Livability consider this to be part of an excellent care or education environment?

Sensory rooms can be enjoyed by anyone, but for people with sensory processing difficulties, they offer a much-needed respite session. Our brains are designed to control how we react to the sensory stimuli we experience all day, every day, whether through what we hear, see, smell, taste or touch. This is called ‘sensory integration’ and is usually something we’re unaware of. But for some, this processing causes distress, either because the brain overreacts or underreacts to sensory input.  This can then affect deeper sensory systems, which regulate the experience of touch, balance and movement, and a range of bodily functions. This is known as sensory processing disorder and many of the people we support live with this condition. The person may use behaviours such as rocking or hand-flapping to cope with what they are trying to process, or have emotional meltdowns or shutdowns.

Favourite music

Stephanie* lives at Livability Keefield Close, where she uses the sensory room most days, supported by staff member Suzzy: ‘Stephanie loves our sensory room, particularly the lights and music – her favourites are Abba and Beyoncé – and sometimes playing with a ball. Stephanie isn’t verbal so she smiles and claps when she’s enjoying herself. I take her to the sensory room as often as I can because it’s something she likes. She gets bored with staying too long in one place and if she’s not happy, she will get agitated – going to the sensory room is always a great place for her.’

Lights, a ball-pit and having a quiet space are some of the most popular features of the sensory room at Livability Treetops, our high dependency home in Essex. ‘It has a destressing, calming effect on our residents, and we also have fortnightly sessions in the room with a professional masseur,’ says area manager Mandy Nixon. ‘This is for around 20-30 minutes and usually concentrates on lower legs and shoulders; residents pay individually for this.’ Treetops residents can also enjoy the service’s sensory bath for relaxation.

For people we support whose disability can mean they live with muscle-tone difficulties, a sensory bath can bring relief and relaxation, especially for wheelchair users. At Livability Ashley Place, residents love to use what manager Elvis Balabka describes as their ‘all-singing, all-dancing bathroom’. The bath itself has a spa function, which relaxes tense muscles, lights and built-in speakers. The spacious room has additional sensory lighting and a two-metre, ‘bubble lamp’, as well as a 360-degree ceiling hoist for easy accessibility. ‘For people who are not able to move easily, muscles can become rigid and uncomfortable,’ Elvis says. ‘I used to have to take one of our residents elsewhere to visit a sensory bath, but now we can provide that here. It has both therapeutic and mental health benefits and people love just sitting there to enjoy the environment and relax.’

Pioneers in education

The benefits of sensory play and experience in education have been explored since the nineteenth century; German educator Friedrich Froebel is often cited as an important pioneer in this field, developing sensory awareness through play and the outdoors. Broader interest in sensory rooms grew from the 1970s, after a Dutch research centre trialled this approach which they called Snoezelen therapy, for people with profound learning disabilities. Sensory rooms are popular at Livability’s education centres, along with other sensory therapies and activities.

The equipment used is tailored for individual needs: a US study found that ‘when autistic children could control the sensory equipment, they paid more attention and performed fewer repetitive and sensory behaviours. They also used less stereotyped speech, produced fewer vocalisations and showed lower levels of activity.’[1]

Kelly Westerby, senior occupational therapy technician at Livability Victoria School, is excited about the school’s new sensory integration room, which is enabling students to be ready to learn, following calming or alerting activities. The room is equipped with different types of swing to support different needs, gym balls and other sensory equipment and toys.

‘So for instance, we have one young man who’s very passive, so we use alerting activities to help him get ready to learn,’ says Kelly. ‘He uses a bolster swing, which is a big roll suspended on bungees, which he sits astride astride and bounces. We’ll do other activities with him, which we call “organising” activities, perhaps with a beanbag, where he has to think about catching or throwing. When we gauge he’s at the right point and is regulated, we might work on handwriting with him, so we move over to a big mirror with liquid chalk pens to draw on the glass. We’re seeing some great success with drawing shapes and the letters of his name. When we’ve learned the tools that can support that student, we then share them with his class teacher so they can be used as little sensory breaks throughout the day.’

Learning to learn

The sensory integration room is mainly used by primary-age students, particularly early years, who ‘then have these tools established as they move on to secondary level’, says Kelly, ‘but we are also beginning to work with some older students as we learn more about how we can use the room’. For autistic students, ‘activities like the swings or weighted blankets can help to keep them regulated, and again, we share what has worked with the class teacher and supply them with tools to keep them regulated throughout the day and promote their learning.’

Communication, balance and movement are other areas that are improved by sensory learning; a student who lacks core strength, and therefore may struggle to sit up and complete classroom tasks, can be strengthened with work on the swings, which builds core muscles and balance, says Kelly. ‘The OT team is absolutely thrilled with this room – it’s such a fantastic resource to have; we’ve changed our practice and it’s really enhanced us a team.’

Thanks to generous donations, students at Livability Nash College have a revamped sensory room. New equipment, including a musical vibrating waterbed, deluxe sound and light interactive panel, bubble tubes, a fibre optic curtain which changes colour in response to touch, and a digital ‘magic carpet’, provide a calm space for students.

Music and movies

Livability staff know the people they support, and what they enjoy, very well and staff seek out additional sensory experiences that bring happiness to individuals. ‘Stephanie loves animated movies that feature colourful things and music, so I look out for movies at the cinema that will meet her needs,’ says Suzzy. ‘We also visit a sensory garden in Harlow town park, which again is something Stephanie loves.’ At Treetops, residents can join in a music session with a visiting therapist, using musical equipment, flags and pompoms. ‘It makes such a cheerful atmosphere, with the people we support choosing the music they like. Two of the people we support have particular favourites – Michael Jackson’s ‘Blame it on the boogie’ and ’Feed the birds’ from Mary Poppins. Staff join in too – it’s interactive for all,’ says Mandy.


*name changed

 

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