‘A better place’: Multisensory room technology is helping students with special needs find comfort zone

When Mary Inhoffer needs to escape echoing overhead announcements and sounds of children in school halls, she darts straight to her school’s “multisensory room.”

It’s a room at Nutley’s Phoenix Center that Inhoffer might first describe as a place students leave happy. She describes herself as leaving it happier, too.

The nonprofit school for students with autism and a range of behavioral and intellectual disabilities serves an eight-county region in North Jersey. In an effort to keep some of those students more prepared for schooling, it invites students into a cushioned room packed with visual and auditory technologies.

Inhoffer, a physical therapist, is a coordinator for the hypnotic multisensory environment, or MSE, as she refers to it. The room’s four walls have lava lamp-like projections that dance on them. Fiber-optic plug-ins dangle down like spaghetti strands. Bubble tubes churn. Beanbags vibrate.

The technologies are simple. They’re “just another of our tools,” Inhoffer said.

They’re also really powerful tools.

“We discover a lot of things about our kids we might not know otherwise in there,” Inhoffer said. “On top of that, kids just leave this room in a better place. We can use it in many ways to meet the needs of an individual child and what they’re going through on that day.”

The room was initially funded through a $10,000 grant nine years ago. Its technological offerings are still expanding with new investment today, including an interactive “infinity panel” that creates a mirrored tunnel visual effect.

All of it is meant to combine for an experience that gives control back to students who often appreciate having some control over their surroundings. They leave feeling calmer, more alert and, importantly, ready to learn, Inhoffer added.

“As far as anticipated outcomes, we want to look at their ability to self-regulate,” she said. “How do they get control of themselves? Because we really want them to participate and be comfortable in their environment.”

The sounds and sights that fill the room can be tailored to the preferences of the student in it to achieve that goal, Inhoffer added. They can manipulate the environment themselves, too.

“For kids who are our ‘movers and shakers,’ it brings them down, relaxes them and allows them to observe things more,” she said. “Or, for those at a lower arousal level, it allows them to do the opposite, and be more interactive.”

Adaptive environments similar to the one created by the Phoenix Center are being developed by other companies and organizations for kids with disabilities.

The interest in it stems from suggestions that children with autism benefit in terms of their development from being provided these opportunities to control over their sensory environment. The actual mechanism behind why that’s true — and the quantifiable extent to which it is true — is still being investigated.

“When you look for hard studies, you find a lot of case studies and information that says that this does what we say it does, just because it does,” Inhoffer said.

The evidence-based research might not be there. The satisfied parents sure are.

Inhoffer described one recent testimonial: A child afraid of the dark became accustomed to sleeping with the lights off largely due to the gradual dimming of the multisensory environment he found comfort in.

“We also had a little girl, now a teenager, who first came here at the age of 7 and wasn’t adaptable, didn’t like the dark or anything about the room,” she said. “Over the years, we’d have her peek in the window. She’d look, be amazed and then run away. … It took five and a half years to enter the environment and enjoy things in there. And we can do traditional physical therapy with her there because the environment allows her to let go and relax.”

In that sense, these environments are being looked at as an effective therapeutic tool. Between that and how happy this local organization’s students are with these spaces, Inhoffer said in her “perfect world,” every child that could benefit from this would have one in their own homes.

Going forward, it’s possible they will.

Adaptive environments similar to the one created by the Phoenix Center are being developed by other companies and organizations.

“There’s even companies now that are starting to build these types of environments in homes,” Inhoffer said. “It’s not inexpensive. But we’re seeing a lot of the benefits of it.”