Video+Story: EPISD’s ‘Sensory Rooms’ help Autism Spectrum Students Get Ready to Learn

Students on the autism spectrum at Lincoln and several other EPISD schools can now benefit from research-based sensory rooms — converted classroom spaces that feature sound, light and tactic devices that provide comfort and lead to more effective learning.

The rooms are available for students on an as-needed basis and can be used whenever teachers sense a trigger that may impact learning in a student.

Autism researchers say rooms with these features, which include swings, light shows, sound machines and other tools proven to relax students in the spectrum, provide students with a safe haven.

“It helps them to calm down before a behavior escalates,” said teacher Katonna Lagua. “We have the lights off and we have the disco ball and the little stars will come out. It just gives them a sense of calm.”

Students typically stay in the room, which is limited to two students at a time, for 15-30 minutes based on the need of the child. The various stations offer areas representing motion, sound, visual and feel/touch to feed the child’s sensory diet.

“Before re-entering the classroom, we want to make sure that the child is calm,” Lagua said.

Lincoln is one of five campuses that have sensory rooms to benefit students with autism. Newman, Herrera and Moreno elementary schools have a similar space while Richardson Middle and Guerrero Elementary are building theirs now.

“This specific equipment and tools in this room really help our students to self-regulate, self-modulate, organize their brain and what’s going on within their sensory system in order to be a lot more productive in the classroom and increase their attention to task,” said occupational therapist Ivette Benore, who has trained teachers on the equipment.

“This is what we call a sensory diet, which is activities that are needed throughout the day to keep them in the just right level of alertness in order to be able to learn in the classroom,” she added.

Initially, teachers guide students to the equipment until they figure out by themselves the stations that meet their sensory needs. Some students might climb on the giant swing for linear or circular motions, while others might jump on a special beanbag or crawl under it.

One Lincoln student last week made his way to the corner of the room and hunched over a platform offering a slight vibration. He gazed at the bubbling tower surrounded by mirrors, watching it change colors while listening to the subtle sounds of the bubbles.

“Autism is very broad and no one’s autism looks the same, so what may be a sensory need for one child may be different from another,” Lagua said. “Investing in a sensory room like this at the schools that have autistic children is a wonderful.”

The room is designed specifically for students in autism units and access to it is outlined in each child’s Individualized Education Plan. Other special-education students may use the room as well if their education plan calls for it.

Teachers can control the different sound effects and visuals on the wall, with oceans and the rainforest being the most popular.

“Our kids have a sensitivity that is at a different intensity than a typical student,” Benore said.  “It is a different perception and interpretation of their own system and how it is working in relationship to the sensory stimulus in their environment.”

Story by Reneé de Santos | Photos by Leonel Monroy | Video by Angel Dominguez/EPISD