This blog has been contributed by Jigaw Occupational Therapy - a specialist provider for children and young people living in the South East of England.
What makes a sensory integration room different from a multi-sensory room? Having been asked this common question one too many times by your average man on the street, I thought it was about time I utilised this platform to settle the matter once and for all.
In many ways we are talking about very similar rooms but they do have some fundamental differences. Importantly, though, both have obvious benefits for those that use them.
Multi-sensory rooms are becoming a more regular, every day sight in various locations – two high-profile examples are Gatwick Airport and The Amex Community Stadium, which both provide such spaces. They have made huge steps to offer a specific space for their visitors with additional needs.
Spending time in a multi-sensory room helps people to develop sensory skills and ensures that they have a secure environment to regulate themselves in, whilst still carrying out their intended daily activity.
By creating a stimulating, yet calm, atmosphere a sensory integration room can have a relaxing effect on those who find it a challenge to stand still, and will aid an individual’s ability to maintain attention.
The development of sensory integration rooms began in the Netherlands in the 1970’s. The initial idea was to deliver stimulation to the various senses, both to relax and calm, while engaging or prompting people with special needs to take notice of their surroundings.
A multi-sensory room is a special room designed and equipped to stimulate the senses of hearing, sight, touch and smell. Rooms often have soft padded floors and walls, cushions and bean bags, for example. These materials and equipment help to create an environment where children cannot hurt themselves.
The aim is to create an environment where every patient feels safe and is given the opportunity to explore the space along with his abilities and limitations.
A familiar sight in multi-sensory rooms are water-filled tubes with coloured balls moving through them together with bubbles – these are designed to capture the visual attention of the user. Touching the tube, you can feel the vibrations produced, and if pressed to your ear you can hear the sounds that come from bubbles. The lighting in the tubes can often be changed using the buttons that the user controls, providing user interaction.
In terms of visual equipment, different optical fibres are used to guide visual attention. In addition to visual stimuli, a multi-sensory room might contain equipment for auditory stimulation. Equipment such as a vibrating flexible music chair provides the user with vibration whilst listening to the chosen sounds. Unfortunately, as you might expect, many of the devices mentioned above are quite expensive.
Now a sensory integration room, such as what we have at Jigsaw OT, is largely used by occupational therapists to help develop an individual's confidence and mobility skills.
Sensory integration activities assist in the development of the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. These senses provide information on movement, awareness of body, and changing of directions. Sensory integration therapy is where users perform activities that combine sensory input with motion to improve the ability of the brain to process sensory information.
Sensory integration therapy can vary massively and it is always specifically adapted to each individual’s needs. That’s why a sensory integration room will be used to meet multiple objectives.
The sensory integration rooms we have at Jigsaw can either have the effect of stimulating or relaxing a user, depending on what pieces of equipment the occupational therapist elects to use. For example, if we have a child who struggles to be calm then we can dim the lights, put on some soft background music and allow the child to snuggle into soft furniture. For those visitors who are lethargic and need to be made more alert we can brighten the lights, incorporate loud, upbeat music and have them take on an obstacle course of swings!
Occupational therapists will have gone through extensive specialist training for this type of therapy and they are responsible for everything that is happening in a sensory integration room. The user is not told or shown what to do, but encouraged to have a natural response to stimuli from the environment that builds up their confidence and their ability.
Although therapy might look like a game, every activity is carefully planned and aims at achieving self-organisation of children. Through this play, specially trained occupational therapists will make the activities more challenging over time, as they closely observe if a child’s sensory system is responding differently. In other words, that they are adapting and their sensory processing is improving. When sensory processing improves, it helps a child focus on the other activities in their life that may be challenging like learning, paying attention, communicating, and even sleeping.
On the surface sensory integration rooms will be very similar to multi-sensory rooms, and will actually utilise many of the elements. Both are safe and secure environments for their users.
One major distinction, however, is that within a sensory integration room swings are frequently used in the treatment. The various array of swings can have strong effect on the brain’s ability to process and use sensory information. Within a sensory integration room, occupational therapists will be focused on incorporating proprioception, the awareness of where your body is in space, and the vestibular system (the sense of balance).
Individuals with challenges in proprioception will outwardly appear clumsy and uncoordinated. By exposing these individuals to heavy work, like pushing and jumping, it will help them develop this sense. Those who have vestibular challenges will find it difficult to maintain balance, but by using a platform swing, for example, it will provide ‘the platform’ to help improve this sense. By working on the proprioceptive and vestibular systems it helps those engaged in the therapy to become aware of how their bodies move and how they can control their movements.
Again, a lot of the equipment you’ll see in sensory integration rooms is expensive to buy, however, you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to get started. Even by simply putting down some nice soft flooring, painting the walls a calming colour, adding some soft furniture and putting light fabric over the lights, you will see a change right away.
Other pieces of equipment that you’ll typically see in a sensory integration room that do not necessarily cost a lot are; therapy balls, body socks, TheraBands and scooter boards, which are all relatively inexpensive and can be utilised in a number of ways. You can also make your own tactile sensory stations but using Tupperware to store dried rice and pasta, water beads, polystyrene balls, sand or fake snow, for example.
We don’t really need to resort to violence between these two sensory spaces, occupational therapists are lovers not fighters anyway! There is room in this world for both sensory integration rooms and multi-sensory rooms; they can each offer a whole host of benefits alongside each other through sensory stimulation, which will enable any user to enhance their abilities by learning through play in a safe and familiar environment.
If you’re looking to further explore the role Southpaw can play in either sensory integration or multi-sensory rooms, browse through our range of equipment for both:
Alternatively, if you want to learn more about the therapies that Southpaw equipment can support, take a look through our range of resources for occupational therapists.