Sensory room guide - supporting the learning and wellbeing of autistic children
Our research programme at the Wales Autism Research Centre has produced evidence-based guidelines for practitioners wanting to use sensory rooms.
Sensory rooms are widely used within schools that support pupils with additional needs, as well as in a range of community and care settings for both adults and children. They are more formally referred to as Multi-Sensory Environments.
Despite their widespread use within special schools, there have been no guidelines for practitioners. The Wales Autism Research Centre has an ongoing programme of research that is investigating the ways in which sensory rooms are used in a range of different contexts. This research has led to the development of the first evidence-based guide to using sensory rooms to support the well-being and learning of autistic children.
The Guide shares the team’s knowledge of sensory rooms, their research findings, and their suggestions for using sensory rooms with autistic children. The team also created a one-page summary sheet to accompany the Guide. The Guide and summary sheet were developed in consultation with educational practitioners, including teachers and trainee educational psychologists, as well as parents and autistic people.
Who the guide is for
The Guide has been developed primarily for educational practitioners. However, the guide may be relevant for a wider range of users:
- Educational practitioners, including teachers and educational psychologists
- Other practitioners using sensory rooms with autistic children
- Parents and carers of autistic children
Download the guide
What are sensory rooms?
A sensory room is a dedicated space that contains sensory equipment to modulate the environment and provide sensory stimulation across different sensory domains. It is an adaptive space as the user or practitioner can control the equipment, changing the types and amount of stimulation to meet the user’s needs.
Sensory rooms were first used in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Two Dutch therapists developed multi-sensory spaces to provide enjoyment for people with a learning disability. They called their spaces Snoezelen® rooms.
Sensory rooms vary in size and scope but all contain a variety of sensory equipment that is focussed on stimulating the senses, including touch, hearing, sight, smell, vestibular (related to balance and spatial orientation) and proprioception (awareness of the body and its movements).
Some pieces of equipment are immersive or require relatively passive engagement, including room lights, music, or watching a bubble tube. Other equipment require more active engagement to produce sensory stimulation, such as touching panels to turn on lights and sounds, or feeling a surface.
The adaptability of the sensory room means that the pupil and practitioner have scope to adjust the amount and type of sensory stimulation. Adjustments can be made to both the choice of equipment provided in the room and how the equipment is engaged with.
Our research explored the use of sensory rooms for autistic children and was focused on two main sources of evidence:
We interviewed ten practitioners, including teachers and teaching assistants, and also surveyed over 100 practitioners using an online questionnaire. The interviews enabled detailed exploration of practitioner beliefs and experiences about sensory room use with autistic pupils, whereas the online survey gave us broader insights.
Forty-one autistic children between the ages of 4-12 years took part in experimental and observational studies in our purpose-built sensory room at the Wales Autism Research Centre. The children attended both mainstream (29 children) and special schools (11 children), with one child still in nursery. We were able to explore how different ways of using the room could lead to potential benefits, including changes in engagement and attention, mood and anxiety, and relationship building. We also explored how children’s equipment preference in the room related to their sensory experiences and behaviours.
The research was made possible by a PhD studentship awarded to Katy Unwin from the Economic and Social Research Council and Cardiff University, as well as the donation of a sensory room to Cardiff University by Mike Ayres Design.
We would like to thank all our participants for giving their time to our research. We would also like to thank our consultants for their thoughtful and valuable suggestions that helped shaped the Guide. Finally, we would like to thank the children and young people who were photographed for the guide.
The Guide was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Research Wales Innovation Fund).