Dan Reyes has often witnessed the benefits of a sensory environment for his 13-year-old son, Jacob, who has autism.
Each Sunday, his family attends LifePoint Church in New Tampa, which has a sensory room devoted to children with special needs.
“He absolutely loves going into that room,” Reyes said. “He’s happy in there. He’s active, and it’s a very engaging room when sometimes other environments are not.”
The caring parent also wants a similar setting made available for Jacob and his fellow classmates at Weightman Middle School, in Wesley Chapel.
So, earlier this month, Reyes launched a GoFundMe page to build a sensory room at the school, where his son is a seventh-grader.
Throughout the school year, Reyes worked closely with school administration and teachers to develop a budget plan for a fully equipped sensory room — something he hopes “will have a lasting impact for years to come.”
A sensory room is a specially designed room that combines a range of stimuli to help individuals develop and engage their senses. These can include lights, colors, sounds, sensory soft play objects, and aromas within a safe environment that allows the person using it to explore and interact without risk.
These rooms are credited with helping those who have learning difficulties, such as developmental disabilities or sensory impairments, to learn to interact with the world around them, and build up their confidence.
Such rooms often include a variety of items with vestibular input (items that allow users to spin, swing or hang), visual input and lighting, olfactory (smell), proprioception (items that allow the user to be squished or hugged), tactile, touch, feel, and auditory output.
Some examples include swings, bouncing chairs, lava lamps, fluorescent light filters, scented oils, scented playdoh, therapy balls, mini trampolines, textured puzzles, vibrating kids toys, sound pillows, and indoor wind chimes.
Several of those items will be purchased to meet the needs of current, as well as incoming, students.
As of April 16, nearly $4,000 of the $35,000 goal has been raised on the GoFundMe page.
Additionally, the school has held a beanie baby sale, sponsored dinners and set up other fundraisers at local restaurants to make the sensory room project a reality.
Weightman Middle has about 30 students in its Access Points Social Behavior Communication Program, geared toward students with severe and continuous behavioral needs, communication and sensory needs associated with autism spectrum disorder.
For the time being, the school is utilizing a makeshift sensory space that accommodates just one student at a time. It includes a handful of donated and purchased sensory items like a piano mat, drumsticks and tumble balls, along with some other handmade playthings.
But, Weightman staff hopes to have a full-size sensory room ready by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
The designated room would take the place of a regular-size classroom situated in the school’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) unit, where it’s expected to exhibit a “nature theme” on walls and carpeting.
Teachers would have the possibility of scheduling classes in the sensory room, or could take students there, as needed. The room could also be utilized at the beginning of the school day or in 30-minute break periods.
Assistant Principal Laurie Johnson, who supervises the school’s ESE department, said such a space would allow special-needs students to self-explore and find items that best meet their sensory needs to calm their behaviors.
For instance, one student may relax by spinning. Another may enjoy a swinging motion. Others, moreover, may utilize a punching bag to release frustration.
“If their sensory needs are not met, then often they can start to experience behavioral problems,” Johnson said.
Without that sensory input and output, students with autism may exhibit aggressive behaviors, such as biting and self-harm, educators explained. Others may resort to crying or the inability to stop moving.
“It’s not that they’re acting out ‘just because.’ They are acting out because they have a need and it’s not being met,” said varying exceptionalities teacher Loretta Seekins.
Having those sensory needs met helps those students become more attentive during lessons, Seekins said.
“You’re not going to get any educational benefit by a student that can’t focus,” she said.
The teacher added a sensory room would also reinforce and enhance communication and socialization skills among the school’s autistic population.
Seekins said the idea is to help students become more acclimated to being in environments where others are doing things, talking and socializing.
“It’s not something that will happen overnight, but you’re building toward that,” she said.
School behavioral specialist Leslie Monticco agrees such a room is imperative for nonverbal students to better express themselves and self-regulate. “To have somewhere to go as an escape is huge,” she said. “It is a need.”
Weightman Middle Principal Rachel Fowler has fully endorsed the sensory room.
She stressed the importance for students to receive support for all their needs, not just academically.
“We do a lot for social interaction and having that space outside of a regular classroom is essential, so they can remove themselves and truly use those other senses to help their brain,” Fowler said.
To donate to the sensory room project, visit GoFundMe.com/sensory-room-for-children-wautism.
Published April 18, 2018