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.

Interested in learning how to create your own sensory room? Check out Sensory Room 101.

View a transcript of this video

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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Katlyn Alexander's picture
Katlyn Alexander
I am a student at the University of Northern Iowa

I am currently going to school for Elementary Education and Instructional Strategy. I absolutely love this idea of a sensory room in the school. I have learned a lot about how student's regulation can either help their learning or if they are unregulated they might have a difficult time learning. These rooms will help students be able to enhance their learning experience by allowing them to regulate their emotions. I am really excited to see if more schools are going to design a sensory room for their students!

Kathy Romania's picture

We actually have several other sensory rooms in our school district that are different than the one featured. We have designed them based on the needs at particular schools and the most recent one was designed for a very small space.

Jacob Thomas's picture

This is fantastic! Could you give me more information on how the resources were required to create this room? Are there grants of some kind to get this into schools that maybe do not have the resources to support this? Thank you for the fantastic article. I think it is amazing that these kids have such a great space!

Shellie Rush's picture

This is wonderful! Two of my children were recently diagnosed with Autism. One is high-functioning, and the other is too young to determine the severity. I love learning more and more about Autism, and I appreciate the information presented in this post. I look forward to more!

MonLu's picture

I absolutely loved this video! Meriden Public Schools is doing such an amazing job. I like how this room is not specifically for spacial students but for the students in the school because kids sometime jut need to shake off their bad day, anxiety, anger, ect. I have been in in school that do not show interest or a strong passion to be working with our special needs students. I'm a strong believer that a teacher should do everything possible to help students stay focus and give their best in class special needs or not. I understand that there is multiple factors such as system of the school or the biggest one budget of the district that create a blockage on planing or designing a sensory room.
One question would something like this help a child with sever autism?

Hands down great job Meriden Public Schools!

Stephen DeBoer's picture
Stephen DeBoer
Follower of Christ, husband of one, father of three, high school science and music teacher, pianist, avid reader, passionate about the Kingdom of Heaven

I love this video about sensory rooms, thanks for sharing! It is so exciting to see a district embrace this across several different schools. My question is, are the sensory rooms presented in this district only found in elementary schools, or are their examples at the secondary level as well? As a high school teacher, I would curious how the design of a sensory room in the secondary context might differ from primary.

Also, is there a way to embrace and foster collaboration among the student body with regard to the sensory rooms? For example, can students work together on tasks in the sensory room, or is it primarily individualized for each student's needs? Are there ways to get the entire student body to embrace the sensory room in a collaborative fashion? Can it be used (and possibly expanded) by the classroom teachers to also instill a sense of wonder and inquiry as well? Or would that be better suited in a different learning space?

Melissa Russell's picture

I would love to have these resources. Can you share more about how you obtained the funding for this room?

Payton Meyer's picture

I am currently going to school for Elementary and Special Education, so this video was very interesting for me to watch! I just kept thinking throughout the entire video, couldn't this be beneficial to all students? Not just the ones with autism?

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