George Lucas Educational Foundation
Schools That Work
Learning Environments

The Sensory Room: Helping Students With Autism Focus and Learn

Imagine a safe space where students with autism can go to calm their bodies and then get back to the business of learning.
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This is part of our Schools That Work series and features key practices from Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut. See how the district redesigned its special education services.
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Cheryl: Research shows that if the student's in the right mindset and they get their sensory needs met, they're going to be much better learners. So after the sensory room, they're able to focus more, they're able to learn easier, and they retain more information, I find.

Heather: Hands to your heart space. Take a deep breath in.

Patricia: The children should be and deserve to be educated within their district and within their school community. In Meriden, we have approximately twelve hundred students who have individualized educational plans. Students with vision difficulties, language difficulties, autism.

Jennifer: So here at Hanover School, we have our STARS autism program, and STARS stands for Students and Teachers Achieving Remarkable Success.

Cheryl: So River, what did we do yesterday, what book did we read?

Heather: So autism presents throughout a very broad spectrum. A lot of times, it's a social issue. Some of them demonstrate behaviors because they are not able to communicate their needs. They may have difficulty sitting still for a long period of time.

Cheryl: They need different sensory breaks throughout the day so they can self regulate their feelings and emotions.

Heather: Take some deep breaths here.

Cheryl: The sensory room is probably my most important piece of the day. Students go to the sensory room in order to calm their bodies and get all the emotions out and stabilize themselves, so they're ready to learn and they're happy.

Heather: When we designed the sensory room, we actually took the entire room apart. We carpeted the floor so that we could absorb some of the sound. We put the shades on the ceiling to change the light, so when they walk in that room, they feel the change. All the students in this school go by that room and want to go in there.

Cheryl: It's actually not just for the STARS program. It's for any student in the whole school that might be having a tough day. My class specifically, we utilize the room once a day for a thirty minute break and then once a week, we have physical therapists that work with our students.

Heather: First thing that they do is go on the ball and they bounce to a metronome.

Clap. Hold.

We work with the breathing to calm them.

Breath in.

And then we move into some yoga.

Lion.

[Students roar]

Heather: It's really a way to ground them into the space before we have them go out into the room.

Cheryl: All right, my friends. We're going to do our rotation now, okay?

So there's different stations in the sensory room, and some of my students love specific stations. One in particular loves the punching bags and the ropes. He's able to get all that anger and frustration out, so that calms him down. Whereas another student, I know he needs calming movements, so he's on the swing going back and forth.

Heather: Another area in the room is the crash pad. You will see students that have sensory issues bump into walls, bang their head. So what we've created is a safe space to crash into. And then there's the light wall. You could use your hands, you could use your feet. There's different games that are programmed on there, and really what you're doing is hitting something, and getting all that input back into your joints.

Teacher: Yes, good girl.

Heather: We also work on balance and coordination. The walking path works on all of those, and that affects your vestibular system, which is your inner ear. And they have to right themselves, correct their body in space. We have ten pound slam balls. Some students just need to come in, pick something heavy up and throw it. That's the essence of a sensory room. You're putting materials in there that are appropriate, so a student's not throwing a chair. And at the end when they finish with their stations, they lay on the floor and they're squished, to give them more input, so that they're prepared to leave the room. So everything that we do in there is predictable, there's a set sequence.

Cheryl: We're all done with sensory room. We're going to walk back to our class.

Patricia: So we have found that the impact of the sensory room has increased time on task, and it has decreased negative behaviors. So the kids are able to sit in their seat and stay focused for longer periods of time.

Teacher: What do you put at the end of your sentence?

Student: Period.

Teacher: Good job, high five.

Cheryl: They're quieter and their hands are to themselves, and they're able to listen to my directions. We're here, we came from the sensory room, we're ready to learn.

How does the sensory room make you feel?

Student: Happy.

Cheryl: Nice job, Alan.

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Rachel's picture

Sensory processing and sensory room design is typically under the domain of an occupational therapist. Why isn't there an occupational therapist in this video? Seems to be a glaring omission.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hi Rachel. You're quite right--an occupational therapist was deeply involved in the designing of the room in collaboration with a physical therapist. As for why they're not both featured... working with the school, it was determined that the PT's lesson would be a great example of the activity in the Sensory Room, and it was happening on the day we were there with our crew, which is why the PT ended up featured in the video. Unfortunately, we couldn't interview all the specialists who work in the room due to time constraints.

Rachel's picture

The occupational therapist doesn't work "in consultation" with a physical therapist in the design of a sensory room, but rather the other way around. The occupational therapist takes the lead in this type of project and to misrepresent that is a disservice. The physical therapist's session was quite atypical for a physical therapist. I'd be surprised if any of those children had physical therapy goals to address their sensory processing. The video is beautiful but is misleading and therefore detrimental towards educating people as to whom they should turn to for sensory delays. It would serve your users well to have this corrected.

Kathy Romania's picture

Rachel,
I just wanted to take a moment to respond to your previous concerns. In our District, Physical and Occupational Therapy work very closely together. In this particular program, the entire team , which includes the Special Education Teacher, Speech and Language Pathologist, Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist share trans-disciplinary goals and objectives. By incorporating the skills and strategies designed and put in place by each discipline throughout each of our lessons, our students are benefiting from these interventions throughout there entire day and not just during there direct service times. I believe this is why our students are so successful.
As far as the room design, I was key in concept, design and creation of the room as well as development of the programming for use of the room. I worked very closely with the Physical Therapist during this process because our team is designed as a collaborative group in order to better serve the students we work with across the district. It was not intended to exclude OT in this video, but it does capture the the easy flow of our trans-disciplinary team in action, between OT, PT and Special Education.

Rachel's picture

It's fabulous that you have so much communication between the disciplines! But that was not evident in the video. Occupational therapy did not even get so much as a shout out

cindy's picture

Thank you for sharing this. I am an occupational therapist working on a program proposal to design one in my school system. I am trying to locate current research to support it's use in the school setting. Please let me know if you can direct me to your research.

Kizzy's picture

I really thought this was a very helpful video. I have a son who could really benefit from a room like this. Also a good place for teachers to relieve stress at the end of the day. Love the idea.

Sevans's picture

HI! I would love to re-create your sensory room. Could you tell me where you got that interactive wall game, your yoga posters and that red cabinet? Thank you SO much!

Hallie's picture

Hi! We saw your video and it enticed us to start planning for our own sensory room. We are wondering if you could share some of your process with us. Could you give us some more information about funding, some must have items, the steps to getting started. Any help would be great!
Thank you,
Hallie

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