The human brain is designed to produce and regulate responses to the body's sensory experience, but for some people the link to the brain and the behavior isn't made. Schools across the nation are finding ways to help their special needs students with lessons and activities that stimulate or calm the senses.
A sensory room was recently added to the Collins-Parr Elementary School in San Diego and on Friday, Feb. 21 the community was invited to attend an open house where they could explore the new edition.
The room was made possible thanks to a $2 million Services to Students with Autism Grant obtained by Robstown Independent School District. The grant came through the Texas Education Association and would go towards the funding of the district's sensory room.
Robstown ISD decided to share the funds with other school districts including San Diego, Bishop, Agua Dulce, Aransas County, Aransas Pass, Ingleside, Sinton, Benavides and Port Aransas. Each district will get about $78,500 per year for the sensory rooms.
"We were part of a 2-year grant with Robstown (ISD) and were able to set up the sensory room. What we've done with that money is to provide training for our teachers, we got equipment for our students and we were able to purchase the curriculum and Ipads for our kids as well," said Rosie Solis, Director of Special Education at San Diego ISD.
A sensory room is a specifically designed and structured room that combines a range of sensory stimuli to help students develop and engage their senses. A typical sensory room includes equipment that engages the fives senses including sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In addition, the sensory room provides equipment and activities that target more complex tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive senses.
"Sensory needs are always changing throughout (a child's) life span," said Denise Parr, Occupational Therapist Registered. "We are working with students from pre-k to nine years old...It provides their body with the sensory input that they're needing and it sends a signal to the brain and calms them down. A lot of times kids will have these behaviors that they are presenting in class. Like you'll see a student who hits himself a lot, rocks in their chair, jumps up and down; the reason they're presenting with those behaviors is because their body is needing that sensory input. So the function of the sensory room is to give them that input in a more appropriate way."
Just about anyone would benefit from a sensory room experience. The students at Collins-Parr Elementary who have been introduced to the room have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, sensory processing disorder, Autism, intellectual disabilities, oppositional defiance disorders, anxiety, developmental disorders, cerebral palsy and more.
For a child with a developmental disorder, the way the brain processes their experiences can be a major sources of distress and discomfort. In some cases, the brain may over-react to sensory stimuli and other times, it may not react enough. Activities in the sensory room are designed to target the sensory input that the child is wanting or craving. Providing exposure to this input in a structured and functional way, reduces the presentation of sensory seeking behaviors and responses.
Each student is targeted in a different way in the sensory room. Their experience is specifically designed for their own needs. Half of the room is designed to calm a student down while the other half is designed to stimulate the student.
The curriculum purchased by the district for the sensory room will be used by the teacher to show the progress of students during admission review dismissal (ARD) meetings. This information determines what the student's needs are as they go through the school system.
"You'll see an increase in focus, a decrease in the behaviors they're showing in class. It also helps with cognitive development, gross motor coordination, fine motor coordination, social skills and over all, self-regulation. Main propriety is self-regulation for the class," Parr said. "We work with parents and students on techniques that can be used at home or while they're out in the community."
The sensory room is only available to the elementary students at this time, but administration at SDISD is working on how to expand the room to the junior high and high school.