This story was submitted by the Valley View School District:
Anyone entering the Valley View School District 365U Autism Sensory Room at Kenneth L. Hermansen Elementary School in Romeoville is immediately welcomed with a kind smile and the calming smell of lavender. The lights are off and relaxing sounds drift from a CD player.
Occupational Therapist Stephanie Raynor is among those making sure each student in the VVSD autism program visits the room at least one time per day.
“This benefits the children because it gives them a chance to relax or get revved up for class,” Raynor said.
When students enter the room, either Raynor or paraprofessional Rebecca Truitt greets them. The students are asked how they feel. Happy? Sad? Giggly? Angry? Tired? They point out their feelings using signs posted on the walls.
The room itself consists of different activity stations.
“Each station is set up to help re-organize their bodies whether it is because they need to relax or just blow off some steam,” Raynor pointed out.
Among the tools Raynor uses is yoga. Yoga increases body awareness, motor planning and relaxation skills. A weight blanket, combined with Raynor’s highly skilled massage techniques, serves as another tool, teaching students self-calming skills.
The sensory room allows students to explore the five senses (sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell) and then add in vestibular (sense of movement) and proprioception (senses from joints and muscles that lead to body awareness). Staff is able to calibrate sensory input to provide students with “just the right challenge” to help them move forward into a “just right” state of being.
Possible activities include obstacle courses, crawling through tunnels, rolling, jumping on trampolines, completing “heavy work” like balancing on balance boards, pushing large therapy balls and crawling up bolsters.
Some students benefit from using the sensory room as a soothing, calm down area, receiving deep pressure with calming music and low light which often helps them relax. Other students use the sensory room as a “wake up” break and use the time to complete different activities to wake up their brains and muscles to become more ready for learning.
Raynor says completing the different stations balances students’ sensory systems and helps the students learn how to self-regulate and learn coping skills by completing meaningful activities. Regulating each student’s sensory system changes from day to day and the staff must work hard to find the right strategy for each student.
“As an Occupational Therapist working in a school district, some of the areas that I focus on are sensory integration, fine motor development and coordination, visual motor skills, and posture and balance,” Raynor said. “All these different areas can be addressed within the sensory room.”
As an Occupational Therapist in VVSD’s Structured Teaching and Learning Environment program, Raynor says having a dedicated Sensory Room is a dream come true. Sensory rooms are widely recognized as playing a key role in working with students with autism. They provide stimulating and/or calming environments and are a place where students can use sensory experiences to explore, to calm themselves, and to practice important social skills. Many school districts don’t have such a room.
VVSD administrators consider themselves lucky to be among the few who do.