The gentle hum of an illuminated water column, touch and sound wall panels, a soft lounge chair that vibrates with music. These are just some of the options available in a Multi-Sensory Room or Environment (MSE). Long popular in other parts of the world, MSE’s are now gaining ground in educational, rehab and residential settings in the USA and Canada. Rapidly expanding technology and interactive options continue to transform the experience for all users, including those with special needs.
Typically, a MSE is a dedicated space or room that is designed to stimulate the senses through a controlled environment enhanced with individualized sensory equipment. Some of the goals and benefits of MSE’s include promoting relaxation and a feeling of well-being, focus and attention, understanding of cause/ effect and social interaction skills. MSE’s are the perfect medium for those with multiple disabilities including visual and/or hearing impairments, cognitive and dementia issues and/or motor delays and impairments. With their sensory components combining touch, vibration and movement with sight and sound, they offer something for all levels.
Components in a sensory room can vary widely and usually involve selection based on the assessment of the special needs or general population that will be utilizing the space. A collaboration between educators, parents, equipment vendors and other related specialists are helpful when planning an MSE. Here are just a few of the options available:
The clear plastic water column produces a steady stream of small bubbles which coordinate with changing light colors within the tube. With an interactive Bubble Tube, the user presses a switch or panel which allow the tube to change color and/or speed of vibration of the bubbles so can help promote cause/effect, turn taking and simple visual perception skills. In addition to the light, the hum and vibration of the tube are also often a source of attention and appeal.
These are light sources made of fiber optic strands in a variety of options including hanging curtains, wall or floor carpets, vertical sprays or draped strands over a sitting piece such as a bean bag cushion. In a semi-darkened room, Fiber Optics produce a soft glow that can promote visual focus and tracking and when used in strands (usually grouped in sets of 100 or more) and draped across the body in a seat or in a swing, the weight of the combined strands provides deep touch pressure input on the body which may help promote the relaxation/calming response.
These devices are a fun method to project colorful images onto walls, ceilings, floors or a soft space such as a draped parachute. Themed concepts such as shapes, planets, a deep sea environment or even customized pictures are displayed on a projector disc or wheel which gently rotates producing a clear slow moving image across the desired surface. In a semi- darkened room, these oversized rotating images are great for calming, attending and visual focus and tracking.
These lounging pieces such as a beanbag, recliner, wedge, pillow or mats have built in speakers which allow the user to “feel” the music through vibration. Classical, drumming and/or even some contemporary new age composers are often good music choices to use with this equipment.
When considering a MSE keep in mind your space. Obstructions such as excess light from windows, wall barriers such as closet doors, cabinets/shelving and/or ventilation (side hvac units etc.) should be covered, moved or minimized as feasible. Additional electrical outlets may need to be installed and lighting should be changed to a rheostat control to allow gradual dimming. Floor and/or wall padding may be needed for comfort and acoustics. Be sure to plan for budget as well. A portable corner unit can start under $5K but rooms can go $20K or more depending on the size, technology and equipment. But the rewards- such as seeing a child with autism make eye contact or having an agitated adult client with dementia calm down- can make the investment in a MSE worthwhile indeed!
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