Creating at-home multi-sensory environment can help those on autism spectrum

A young boy explores lit fiber optics in sensory friendly room
Photo by Michael Modecki

Everyone processes the world through their senses. For those with sensory processing disorders, such as a child with autism, this can be an uncomfortable and over-stimulating experience. Occupational therapists work with individuals with sensory processing disorders to help them experience their environments in a more productive manner.

Individuals with sensory processing disorders, a condition in which the nervous system has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses, experience discomfort on a daily basis and in situations the average person may take for granted, such as when visiting the local museum.

Texas Woman’s University Occupational Therapy professor Tina Fletcher, EdD, OTR, utilizes multi-sensory environments when she and her students assist Dallas area cultural and entertainment venues, such as the Dallas Zoo, Dallas Museum of Art, Arboretum, and Nasher Sculpture Center to be more accessible for those with sensory processing disorders, some of which include autism.

Multi-sensory environments (MSE) are spaces that help those with sensory processing challenges cope with their environments in a productive way. There are two types of MSEs, prescribed and non-prescribed. Prescribed environments are designed with a specific outcome in mind for a specific individual, whereas the effects of non-prescribed environments may be either stimulating or calming.

“[Non-prescribed] multi-sensory environments, along with preparing children for their experience, can help ease the anxiety and general un-ease they feel when exploring a new space.”

Fletcher has designed an MSE with an internal equipment grant at the Texas Woman’s University’s Dallas Center, which has been enjoyed by faculty, staff and students alike.

“When designing a non-prescribed MSE, we typically look to incorporate light displays, weighted blankets, small swings, comforters, soothing sound machines and tactile objects.”

Parents frequently ask her how they can create a MSE for their child at their home, without spending a small fortune. Fletcher recommends the following:

  • Weighted Blankets and neutral warmth comforters: The deep pressure provided from a weighted blanked sends a calming message to the body, though weighted blankets tend to be very expensive. A similar sensation is experienced when using neutral warmth blankets, such as the comforter on your bed, which provide body temperature warmth, and can be found at your local department store for less than $50.
  • Motion-swinging: When we swing, the backward and forward motion is very soothing to our nervous system. Many MSEs have a swing that hang from the ceiling or the doorway, but you can also find free standing swings and gliders, which require less drastic environmental modifications. Safety is always of concern, so be sure to closely monitor your child while they utilize them.
  • Lighting: There are multiple ways to incorporate light into your MSE- projectors, optical fibers and tube lights are all a possibility. The key is to maximize what’s available and minimize overhead, harsh lighting. If opting for bubble tube lights, be sure to put mirrors behind them to give the sense of a larger, duplicated light experience. Old lava lamps, multi-colored holiday lights and fish aquariums with bubblers can provide the same sensations for a fraction of the cost.
  • Tactile objects: Ball pits and tunnels are very popular in multi-sensory environments. Bean bags and other foldable furniture offer similar experiences. Differently textured objects are also great to have, such as feathers, sand, and moldable substances like silly putty.
  • Sound: MSEs typically utilize soothing, white noise. Think about the music heard at the spa- that’s what can be found in a MSE. Instead of investing in a special sound maker, there are a multitude of apps available on your smart phone and playlists on Spotify or Pandora that work well in these types of environments.

Depending on size limitations, an MSE can be as small as a closet or corner of a bedroom, or as large as an old media room.

Fletcher says, “The goal is to create an environment your child recognizes as safe and supportive as they process their everyday experiences and organize their responses to them.”

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