50 years after Cleland and Clark first wrote of the benefits of multi-sensory environments, Sal McKeown finds suppliers are still pushing the boundaries thanks in part to new technology

In the 1970s, two Dutch therapists Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul were working at the De Hartenberg Institute in Holland. They developed a new form of therapy for people with learning disabilities. The prototype was very 70s – a tent with ticker tape blowing round in a stream of air from a fan, ink patterns projected onto a screen, objects with different textures and some strong scents.

The elements they chose were not as important in themselves as the impact they had. This therapy worked. Clients responded, even and especially those who had proved to be very hard to reach. Hulsegge and Verheul called the new activity ‘snoezelen,’ which is apparently a portmanteau word formed from two Dutch verbs ‘snuffelen’ (to seek out or explore) and ‘doezelen’ (to relax). Those two words are still an accurate description of what multi-sensory rooms do. They should have the potential both to calm and to stimulate.

They were not the first to realise the benefits of multi-sensory environments. In 1966, two American psychologists, C.C. Cleland and C. M. Clark, published a paper called Sensory deprivation and aberrant behavior among idiots – a very 60s title. They envisaged a series of rooms full of sensory stimuli: ‘to facilitate choice and failure-free activity among a group of people for whom conventional leisure activity was unsuitable or difficult to facilitate.’

Cleland and Clark described these areas as ‘sensory cafeterias’. During the last 40 years sensory environments have moved out of leisure and therapy into education. In addition, there have been advances in technology with vibrating floors, video walls and interactive whiteboards. Now sensory rooms can be found in schools, hospitals, autism programmes and hospices. So, who are the major suppliers and what do they have to offer? I spoke to some of them at the BETT show in London in January and here’s what they had to say.

Where to start?
Rompa – Snoezelen has partners in many countries across the globe. They are taking sensory provision out into new settings and are working with speech therapists, paediatricians, psychologist and psychiatrists. The Free Resources and Further Reading page of their website has a useful jargon buster and articles about the use of Snoezelen with people who have dementia or autism.

Spacekraft’s site reminds us that the number of children with profound disabilities is increasing by 4-5 per cent per year. About 45 per cent of premature babies who are 20-25 weeks old have significant learning difficulties and 1 in 20 are visually impaired. As well as providing for these children, Spacekraft also caters for those in later life with a Reminiscence Projection Kit for occupational therapists to use. This features pictures of stars of yesteryear such as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby.

Multi-sensory environments used to have a dedicated room but now they can be smaller scale and more versatile. 4D Creative are known for their ‘pop up immersive spaces’, a ‘space within a space’ that can be set up in 15 minutes with no techies or tools required. Plug in the inflatable, switch on the fan and up it pops. Slot in projection screens and position lights. Select the 4D software from the iPads and you are good to go.

4D Creative pop up immersive spaces

4D Creative pop up immersive spaces

Olympic themed physiotherapy sessions work well because patients try that little bit harder when they are urged on by the roar of the crowd. Schools can bring geography to life by getting up close to the Great Wall of China, exploring a desert or experiencing the humidity and sounds of a rainforest. A 4D pop up costs from £18,750 and one of its big advantages is you are not stuck with a large installation when you need the room for something else.

Another small solution is from SensoryPlus, which offers a kit in a suitcase. It was designed especially for Community Occupational Therapists and others who need to take the sensory experience to the individual rather than the individual to the sensory experience. Their site is good for case studies too, especially one for vestibular balance activities.

Multi-sensory environments can be a good form of pain distraction and can be used to incentivise children to get up and move or to start a physiotherapy session. Amazing Interactives is proving very popular with young patients. There are roller coaster rides and cartoons, underwater fish scenes and winter wonderlands, all in 3D. Staff have noticed how the children appear more relaxed and less conscious of their discomforts when enthralled by the immersive scenes.

Odense University Hospital has been using an interactive floor called WizeFloor to stimulate children physically and mentally. This lets staff observe how the children behave, how they interact with others, what they can do and how they react to various external stimuli.

Arne Høst, Head of the Hans Christian Andersen Children’s Hospital, said: ‘This is valuable information for us as physicians and we also know that happy and stimulated children recover more quickly.’

Recent developments
Osborne Technologies realised that traditional sensory rooms may offer little for people with autism and started to look at different ways of reaching those with the condition. They have spent two years developing the idea for SensoryScent. Their specialist Matt Ward creates all aromas inhouse, and has produced over 400 smells.

The SensoryScent has also been used in care homes to encourage hunger in people with dementia, who have previously not been eating regularly, and to calm others down with familiar scents from their past. A resident of a care home in Ipswich was agitated each morning because he wanted to get up and go to work and was very worried he would miss his train. Osborne recreated the aroma of a train station in his room for him in a morning, which seems to have helped him to overcome his worry and calm him down.

Immersive Interactive is developing more resources for use with gesture-based technology. While it is quite commonplace to see interactive floors they also have interactive walls which work well with Kinect gesture-controlled apps. Children can drag and drop, press, and swipe as they would with a tablet screen. They can also jump and make big gestures – good for developing gross motor skills and encouraging exercise. It can also complement kinaesthetic learning.

The company supplies all the hardware and some software but are finding that many schools want to use the templates provided but prefer to create their own resources. In fact some teachers create the content away from the space, confident that when they come into school everything will work.

Do your homework
Settings which are looking to order a multi-sensory environment should do their homework. It is a relatively expensive item and once installed may be hard to change. Look for longevity. Integrex is one of the longest established, having been going since 1969. They appreciate that centres need personalised systems rather than one-size-fits-all designs.

A multi-sesory room installed by Integrex

A multi-sesory room installed by Integrex

They have created some ‘visits to Disneyland’ complete with the smell of candy floss. Integrex is highly successful and in fact get business retrofitting unsuitable sensory spaces. Partly this is because they appreciate the need to keep costs down in these times of recession. Sales manager Ben Winfield advises would-be purchasers to do their research before contacting companies: ‘Make sure they have a good track record and get three quotes before making a decision.’

Where next?


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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