FOCUS occupational therapists

Some Lee Schools Unveil Sensory Rooms – Why Our FOCUS Occupational Therapists Think More Should

Recently in Fort Myers, Heights Elementary School unveiled a new “sensory room” to provide “brain breaks” for exceptional student education (ESE) pupils. Smaller-scale versions of this are open at two other Lee County schools, according to FOX4. Our FOCUS occupational therapists hope this is just the beginning of a new trend at Lee County Schools – and elementary schools throughout Florida and across the country.

Schools are noisy, busy places overflowing with all kinds of stimuli: Florescent lights, echoing sounds, lots of people in close quarters, lingering cafeteria smells, brightly-colored walls and more. All of this can be quickly overwhelming to children with conditions like autism spectrum disorder or ADHD.

The human brain is designed to produce and regulate responses to our sensory experiences – those we see, touch, taste, hear and smell. “Sensory integration” is how we refer to this link between our brain activity and behavior. For children with certain developmental disorders, the way the brain processes these senses can cause significant discomfort or distress; the brain either overreacts or doesn’t respond adequately. When a child has difficulty regulating their sensory stimuli, it’s called “sensory processing disorder,” which can lead to all sorts of negative behaviors that can be a discomfort to the child and a disruption in the classroom.

Sensory rooms in schools can be a practical solution, providing calming, safe spaces for children with an array of sensory needs. As our FOCUS occupational therapists can explain, a child whose sensory diet is adequately fed will be MUCH better equipped to relax, focus and get down to the actual business of learning.

What Is a Sensory Room? 

Sensory rooms are generally understood to be quiet spaces dedicated to stimulating, developing and relaxing one’s senses. Also sometimes referred to as “multi-sensory rooms,” they’re designed to help kids regulate their brain’s negative reactions to external stimuli, as well as develop coping skills.

In the classroom, children are expected to sit still for long stretches, watch and listen to a teacher and closely follow strict instructions. Sensory rooms, meanwhile, generally offer kids a bit more autonomy to explore their environment at their own pace. They’re often equipped with low or adjustable lighting, mirrors, bubble tubes and lamps, comfortable seating, aromatherapy diffusers, interesting objects to examine and feel and sometimes low, calming music. There can also be equipment for helping develop certain physical skills.

These spaces can also be an excellent alternative to traditional punishment for children with special needs. The child has an opportunity to learn to manage their emotions and responses in an environment that is still controlled and safe, but not isolating or negative.

Sensory rooms aren’t going to “cure” a child’s sensitivity to certain stimuli, but when directed by a skilled therapist, knowledgeable teacher and/or caring, attentive parent, it can help the child develop coping mechanisms that can serve them in the world outside of that space.

FOCUS Occupational Therapists Explain Benefits, Effectiveness of Sensory Play

Children with autism and other developmental challenges will experience benefits if they have access to a sensory room, though the exact nature of each will vary depending on the individual.

Some noted positive outcomes include:

  • Calming. A child who is overstimulated can use a sensory room to help them decompress and take charge of their emotions in a quiet space. For some children, low lights and white noise are very effective.
  • Stimulation. For children with sensory-seeking tendencies, the opportunity to exert force or receive pressure (pushing heavy objects around, jumping on a mini-trampoline, etc.) can be calming in itself. It also encourages feelings of awareness and well-being.
  • Socialization. Children can derive benefits from sensory rooms on their own, but they can also be used to practice playing with others in a safe, stress-free place where they can explore and move together.
  • Focus. It can be very difficult for children with some conditions to pay attention – especially for sustained periods. Sensory rooms can help them improve focus by increasing their awareness and giving them a place to “reset.”

These are also all things we work on as FOCUS occupational therapists in our clinic. If you have any questions about how to set up a sensory room that meets your child’s needs or how best to utilize the sensory room in your child’s school, we can help!

We also highly recommend checking out a new Fort Myers children’s gym that just opened called, “We Rock The Spectrum Fort Myers,” which provides kids with various sensory activities and is advertised as “the gym for ALL kids.”

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Heights Elementary School opens sensory room, Nov. 25, 2019, By Rochelle Alleyne, FOX4

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