It’s Not About the Equipment
We suggest you read the first article in this series “What is a Multisensory Therapeutic Environment” before reading this article.
Have you ever felt overloaded? Everything is too much, your senses are exploding and you just want to shut it all off for a minute? If that’s how you sometimes feel, imagine how much worse it can be for a person with sensory issues who constantly feels overstimulated. How can we slowly and safely introduce such a person to the feeling of having certain senses stimulated? The answer is a Multisensory Therapeutic Environment (MSTE). The MSTE is like a blank canvas upon which the therapist can unleash any sense they choose, allowing the client to adapt to each sense in his/her own time, and in his/her own way.
In every school, home, and place of work there are people who could benefit from a multisensory therapeutic environment (MSTE) which offers respite to those who have become overloaded and need a place of escape that is perfectly suited to their sensory needs. Therapeutically, the MSTE has multiple applications and can be readily adapted, by a skilled therapist, to the needs of different people.
Because it has the potential to offer so much, creating an MSTE is no simple matter. What you put in it will depend on your target audience and the goals you have in mind, constrained by any budgetary and space limitations. These decisions are usually made in conjunction with a trained therapist who understands the practical application of the MSTE very well. Bear in mind that the overall aim of the MSTE is to provide a safe space – an environment that is relaxing and calm for the overstimulated and interesting and exciting for the under-stimulated. Because once that environment is created, the person using the room can discover skills s/he never knew were possible.
In this article, you will find guidelines as to the general categories of equipment that could go into your MSTE and how they address the five main senses of vision, touch, hearing, balance and body position.
What is most important to note, however, is that the success of an MSTE is not about the equipment. It is almost entirely dependent on how the room and equipment is used, and not on what equipment is there. You can have the fanciest MSTE with all top of the line expensive equipment, but if it’s not being used properly it will be useless. And, you can have a simple room equipped with a cardboard box full of different textured fabrics that, combined with a trained professional, will provide endless success stories.
Seeing is Believing (Sense of Sight)
Walk into a sensory room and you may be struck by how stark it appears at first sight. This is no coincidence. The MSTE is deliberately comprised of lots of white space – white walls, white mats on the floor and walls. When an individual first walks into the MSTE, they will be confronted with relative darkness. The therapist or person guiding the session can control every single aspect of the lighting from then on, effectively providing exactly the lighting that is needed to stimulate the senses or provide a feeling of safety. The therapist might choose to light up a specific area or leave it in darkness depending on the needs of the client.
The lighting that is used usually incorporates a variety of colors, and levels of brightness, from dim to very bright. There is often a projector that can be used to project different images and patterns of light onto the walls or ceiling.
Some rooms will have fiber optic cables that light up in different colors and hang down from the ceiling to the floor, others may use a string of Christmas lights that twinkle, and still others might even use a simple flashlight with multiple settings. Please note that it is important to check the safety standards and guidelines of products that are not specifically designed for use in an MSTE.
A common staple of most MSTE’s is a bubble tube, which is a clear plastic tube that contains liquid bubbles that light up in different colors. This item usually has an assortment of settings so that the bubbles move in various ways and change colors or stay the same, attracting attention and giving the client something eye-catching to focus on.
Stay in Touch (Sense of Touch)
The MSTE offers a feast for the tactile senses. You don’t have to introduce all of these at once, but the range of options is there. A tactile experience is a crucial part of an MSTE, and having an assortment of objects made up of all different textures and materials is key. These items can include: rubber balls in a variety of textures, putty that can be squeezed or stretched, dolls or other toys made out of fabrics and string of varying textures, and more.
Cause-and-effect items fall into the “touch” category as well as they can teach consequences and show that when you touch something (i.e. press a certain button or flip a switch) there will be a particular result (i.e. a sound or a light).
Stuffed animals that vibrate, soft pillows and throw blankets, mats or carpet on the floor all can contribute to and encourage tactile engagement. Many MSTE’s will also have a “sensory box” which is a storage container filled with many small objects – things like legos or other small toys, pom poms or other soft items – that someone can put their hands in and feel lots of textures at the same time.
Play it By Ear (Sense of Sound)
A sound system – ranging from a simple speaker to connect to your phone to a full-fledged professional level system – is a must have for any MSTE. You also need an assortment of CD’s (or streaming or downloaded music and sounds) that cover all the bases from classical music to rock to calming nature sounds and anything in between.
In some cases, small musical instruments like a harmonica or a miniature drum or keyboard can also be useful. Some find that toys or objects that play music or make noise when thrown or touched in a certain way are also good to have around.
Of course, another sound that is an important tool in an MSTE is the voice of the therapist, teacher or whoever is guiding the session as well as the voice of the person using the room him/herself.
Keep Your Balance (Sense of balance and proprioception)
There are two additional senses that come into play in an MSTE – the vestibular sense which enables a person to keep his/her balance and proprioception which provides a sense of where one’s limbs are in relation to other body parts and other people or objects. Put more simply, proprioception tells you where your body ends and something else begins.
There are several pieces of equipment that are found in an MSTE that deal with both the vestibular sense and proprioception. A swing or hammock is a great tool that deals with balance and sense of movement. A balance beam is another example, and a disco ball or flashing lights can also help with practicing balance. In a larger space, you might see a ball pit that looks like (or might even be!) a small inflatable children’s pool filled with plastic balls, which is the ideal place for a person to start to feel where their own body ends. A beanbag chair, especially one that vibrates, can also be useful here.
The Missing Senses
You might be wondering why, if we are talking about a multisensory environment, have we left out 2 senses – those of smell and taste. You may find some MSE’s that do bring in elements of these senses, but we don’t recommend it, and here’s why:
The sense of smell is very personal – a scent that one person loves may make another person physically ill. And, especially in a confined space, once a scent is released it can be hard to air it out. Because an MSTE is usually used by multiple people in a day, it is important to keep a neutral scent and not use any air fresheners or essential oils that could potentially have a negative effect on some clients.
Regarding taste, the main reason for not bringing food into the MSTE is simply one of cleanliness.
Where will the MSTE be Located?
When planning an MSTE you need to consider where it will be located. Whether it will be created inside a school, a care facility, or even a private house.
Following are a few things you should think about when choosing the location:
- Is the location accessible to a person in a wheelchair or with limited mobility?
- Is the room big enough to contain an assortment of equipment?
- Is there storage for the equipment that is not being used during particular sessions?
- Is the room soundproof or in a quiet location away from any noise that will disrupt the use of the room?
- Does the room have natural light (i.e. windows) and if so can they be covered so that you can have full control over the level of light and dark in the space?
- If the room does not have a window or other natural ventilation, can you install a fan in order to ensure air circulation?
In addition, it is important to consider how the room is accessed – is it located off of a main hallway where there is likely to be a lot of noise? In order to encourage calmness and project a feeling of safety even before entering the room, it is better to have the MSTE in a quiet location and, if possible, to have its own little waiting area so that the person entering the room can do so in stages,
Don’t Start Shopping Yet…
Now that you know where your MSTE will be and you have a sense (pun intended!) of what types of equipment you need in order to create a Multisensory Therapeutic Environment, do not rush out and start purchasing materials. For an MSTE to reach its full potential and to provide users what they truly need, it is important to design the room in conjunction with a trained professional who can help you determine your goals and understand what equipment will help you meet those goals, and more importantly, how to use the equipment in the most effective way.
We would love to help you design your MSTE. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. And continue reading this series to learn more about the use of the MSTE!