What is a Multisensory Therapeutic Environment?

Every minute of the day, our minds and bodies are bombarded with stimuli. The majority of people are able to process the constant stimulation and respond accordingly. 


But for adults and children with sensory disorders, their reality is different. They still must function in the same environment as everyone else, despite the fact that their senses don’t react to everything going on around them in the same way that everyone else’s do. For children, in particular, the challenge is especially great. They can’t necessarily explain what it is they are feeling and they don’t understand why they react the way they do. The result is often unruly and unhappy children and stressed out and worried parents, teachers, and caregivers. 


At Beit Issie Shapiro, we have taken the concept of a “multisensory environment” – a well-known method of creating a “safe space” and calming atmosphere to allow for respite away from the agitation and anxiety that plague people with sensory disorders – and added a therapeutic element to it. A Multisensory Therapeutic Environment (MSTE) is a safe haven for people who experience sensory overload on a regular basis, whether they become overstimulated or understimulated. Originally developed by Beit Issie Shapiro’s Dr. Michele Shapiro, a world-renowned multisensory environment expert, Beit Issie Shapiro’s Issie Senses is a unique methodology that combines a tailored sensory environment with a unique treatment approach. The focus is on adapting the conditions of the room to perfectly suit the needs of the person using it so that they can successfully receive treatments and therapies in that environment, thereby setting them up for greater success. 


Where it all Began


The concept of a multisensory environment (MSE) originated in Holland in the 1970’s. Two Dutch therapists working at a center for adults with intellectual disabilities were looking for a way to increase their clients’ enjoyment of the world around them. At their annual summer fair, they built a “sensory tent” which they filled with different objects designed to address the five senses. For example, they had a fan blowing around pieces of paper, music playing, other tactical objects, scented soaps, and foods of different flavors. The results spoke for themselves with the participants clearly interacting and showing positive reactions. Ultimately, the therapists called this new sensory environment “snoezelen” which is a combination of Dutch words meaning “to explore” and “to relax.”


Over the years, Beit Issie Shapiro professionals have conducted original research, led by Dr. Shapiro, proving the impact of multisensory environments on people with disabilities that impact their sensory processing. The outcome has been the development by Beit Issie Shapiro of Issie Senses – an MSTE combined with specially trained professionals to use the space to have a huge positive impact on the quality of life of anyone with sensory processing issues, whether stemming from an underlying disability, old age, or any other reason. 


A Feast for the Senses: How Does it Work?


The overall goal of an MSTE is to create a customized environment in which sensory stimulation can be fully controlled in order to perfectly match the sensory needs of the person using the room. The room is not a therapy in itself, but rather a controlled environment which can be used for anything ranging from occupational, speech or physical therapy to emotional therapy or truly any type of activity. An MSTE contains a number of different elements and types of equipment, each of which has a specific purpose relating to five specific senses: sight, touch, hearing, vestibular (movement), and proprioception. The therapist (or whoever is guiding the use of the room) will determine exactly how to set it up and which equipment to use for each individual depending on that person’s needs and what the goals are for the session. The beauty of the MSTE is in its adaptability – it can be used to work on any number of specific mental or physical goals. 


Whatever the specific goal is, the MSTE works to increase or decrease stimulation of one or more of the following:



An MSTE uses different lighting effects such as projectors that can display images or various light patterns on the walls and floor, UV lights, bubble lamps, and more. This equipment can be used, for example, for mood lighting to create a calming atmosphere, to help get a person accustomed to bright lights, or even to help teach the names of different colors or objects.



There are many tactile tools in an MSTE, such as textured walls, objects made of different shapes, sizes and materials, soft pillows, and weighted blankets. The variety of things to touch can soothe people who understand their surroundings better by touching everything and can also help those who have an aversion to certain textures. Weighted blankets are a great way to mimic the touch of a human hug particularly for those who don’t like to
be touched by other people.



Most MSTE’s have a sound system that can play any type of music or sounds, including sounds of nature, animals, and more. There also may be toys or other objects that play music or make a noise when touched or when a switch
or button is activated. All of these sound-related devices can be used to create a particular atmosphere (either more calming or more stimulating), to help with modulating a person’s own volume and tone of voice, or to help someone get used to hearing certain noises.



The vestibular sense relates to balance and tells us whether we are moving or staying still. It is an important element in the proper development of muscle tone and gross motor skills. 


Items such as balance beams, swings, mini-trampolines, and a disco ball or strobe light are commonly used in an MSTE in order to help promote and practice proper balance and to get used to the sense of movement.



Proprioception uses information from our muscles and joints to make us aware of what position our body parts are in relative to each other and to other people or objects.


For people whose proprioception does not work properly, it can be hard to tell where their own body ends and the rest of the world begins. In the MSTE, there can be equipment designed to address this issue, such as a ball pit in which the feeling of being surrounded by plastic balls can help a person learn how their own body fits into the environment around them. Other items that can be used are big bean bag chairs and weighted and/or vibrating blankets. 


The Benefits


A MSTE allows a person with sensory processing difficulties to experience freedom. It is a place where s/he can feel completely comfortable and safe. And, in control – something that is often lacking. 


It is a non-threatening environment in which people can both temporarily escape from the sights and sounds that feel threatening to them out in the real world as well as learn how to deal with them so that they can function better in all aspects of their lives.


Often, when removing the stimuli that a person finds overwhelming and putting him/her in a calm and quiet space, a therapist or teacher will find that the individual has hidden talents and skills that were simply unable to come out. 


Read the second article in this series in order to learn more about how to create the ideal MTSE…

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