Senses and sensibility
The multi-sensory room, whether squeezed into a former broom cupboard or given a vast, luxurious space, is now a common and useful feature of special needs schools.
It can be dark, light, quiet or noisy - easily adjusted to suit pupil preferences or a particular activity. It could be themed or perhaps linked to a curriculum topic, which helps immerse pupils in the relevant subject in a meaningful way.
Basic concepts such as counting can be re-enforced via the magic of a bubble tube. The tube provides a delightful visual stimulus, and staff can switch it on and off or change colour while saying things such as "one, two, three ... green".
Different senses can be stimulated within a multi-sensory room: sight, through torches, bubble tubes, projectors, UV lights and fibre optics; touch, with tactile panels, objects and switches; and hearing, via percussion instruments, wind chimes and music played on a stereo. One of my favourite pieces of equipment is the vibro-board, which is attached to a speaker and resonates with the bass notes of any music. Lying on it is strangely soothing.
Modern technology has opened many exciting possibilities for multi-sensory rooms, but it is important to remember that the low-tech (and cheaper) options can be just as effective as high-tech ones. Torches with coloured plastic placed in front of the beam can create interesting light effects, as can simple reflective surfaces such as CDs or metal spoons. Perhaps the most valuable asset of all is having a creative imagination.
It's important to think of it as not just a relaxation room. The starting point has to be the pupil's needs and interests, such as the effects of lights or sounds. If preferences can be established, then the room becomes a fantastic tool for enabling pupils to make choices and develop their methods of communication - ranging from looking around the room for a desired item, to using sign-language or vocalisations to request more of a favourite activity.
The controlled environment room makes it easier to observe and monitor even the tiniest sign of progress, which could otherwise get lost in the hustle and bustle of the classroom. One of our most profoundly disabled pupils flicks his eyes and gives a small smile every time he enters our sensory room, which shows he is aware of, and pleased by, the change in his environment.
Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex.