Using Sensory Rooms: How Beneficial Are Autism Sensory Rooms?

Kids with autism tend to have sensory issues, so many schools, residential placements, and even other places like hospitals are building autism sensory rooms. In this blog, I’m talking about sensory rooms for kids with autism.

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I’m a behavior analyst, not an occupational therapist, so I tend to look at things (including autism sensory rooms) with a behavioral lens. I did a recent blog on the topic of sensory issues, where I discuss doing an assessment of the child’s strengths and needs, including sensory issues. I also covered the use of some sensory interventions, like noise-canceling headphones, desensitizing kids to non-preferred foods, and modifying clothing to make children more comfortable, so you could check that video blog out later if you need to.

Many schools and even now hospitals are starting to create autism sensory rooms, and some schools also just have sensory items in the classroom.  You’re using sensory activities, and sensory items, but then there’s dedicated sensory rooms which can be a real benefit but can also cause problems. The problem with sensory items and sensory rooms, in general, is they’re often used “willy nilly”, as I call it. These rooms are used incorrectly, resulting in more problem behaviors, and less benefit. Here are three real-life examples that I’ve seen, where autism sensory rooms have been misused and caused more problems. One little girl, I’ll call her Laura, was entering first grade at a new school after she had been homeschooled for kindergarten, and she was at level 3 of the VB MAPP. She had almost completed the VB MAPP, which puts her in about a 4-year-old level of language, even though she was 7, going to first grade. On her schedule, first thing in the morning, she would go to the sensory room or maybe she’d go to inclusion for a little bit, for calendar time, and then she’d go to the sensory room for a 15 or 20 minute period, and then she would go somewhere else for instruction.

When I went to observe her the first time, she was in the sensory room, as per her schedule, with an aide sitting there.  Laura was kind of crashing in the ball pit, going on the swing, and bouncing on a ball. She seemed happy and all, but she was going to be included for half the day or most of the day, with her typically developing peers. She didn’t know how to read and she was not really benefiting from the sensory room activities. This is what I call free play or fill time.  There were no goals and no reason for her to be in a sensory room on a schedule. One point is just because a child has autism and the school has a sensory room, does not mean that a particular child should spend any time in the sensory room. We need to look at what the goals are for this sensory room. If it’s just free play, this child could probably be benefiting more from being with typically developing peers or could be learning in an intensive teaching environment.

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The second experience I had was a little boy, I’ll call him Allen.  They had a sensory room in his school. He, again, was a level 3 or above on the VB MAPP,  so he was almost conversational and had a lot of language, but also had a lot of deficits. He was included for most of the day with his typically developing peers, while I was involved with his IEP.  He was not placed in the sensory room for sensory activities. So they had this room being unused most of the time.  He was actually getting Language for Learning, or Language for Thinking, which is a standardized curriculum. The aide was pulling him out of the classroom and taking him to the sensory room for a spot to learn, but it was very distracting.  Even just with the swing there and all the fun activities, but worst of all, she’s doing instruction with Allen, and there are kids having sensory breaks, squealing, and on the swings. I told her, “This is completely inappropriate, to be trying to use the sensory room with children in it, and lots of distractions.” That was another way that a sensory room backfired.

The third example, I’ll call this little boy Nick.  He was in an autism classroom for most of the day. He was doing math instruction, but when I got there, he was in the sensory room because he had just had a problem behavior during math. He had ripped up his paper or overturned the desk, or something pretty severe. I said, “Well, why is he in the sensory room?” They said, “Well, he just needs to decompress. He needs to take a break. This obviously was too hard,” So that was used following the problem behavior to calm the child down, thus reinforcing that problem behavior.  There’s just a lot wrong with that.

Here is an example of where a sensory room worked for us. I’ll call this little boy Jimmy. Jimmy loved to jump and swing, and he was included for a lot of the day.  We used a counter clicker, and we would use it to give him points for attending, for using his language, for writing, and for participating in the classroom activities. When Jimmy earned 100 points, he was able to choose an activity, and that might be the sensory room. If he chose the sensory room when he got 100 points he would go into the sensory room with a 5-minute timer, and he would bounce or swing, and when the timer rang he would go back to the general education environment.

In summary, sensory rooms can be helpful if they’re used correctly, sandwiched between harder or less preferred tasks, and used as a reinforcer. Sensory rooms shouldn’t be used to fill time, or as free play without goals or directions for the assistant who would be accompanying the child to the room. Sensory rooms should also not be used for direct instruction areas, or as a time out or break area after kids exhibit problem behavior, because this will lead to more issues. I hope you enjoyed my take on autism sensory rooms. They can be useful, but we have to be super careful when we use them.

Before you go, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, share the video, and let me know what you think about autism sensory rooms. To learn more on how to help children with autism, you can sign up for a free online workshop, at marybarbera.com/workshops, and you can watch one of those free workshops to help you. I’ll see you right here, next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?
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