Denville sensory classroom helps elementary students focus
Tina Theodoropoulos, principal at Riverview Elementary School in Denville, explains how sensory classrooms have helped her students focus on learning.
Danielle Parhizkaran, NorthJersey.com
- Sensory rooms are designed to allow anxious students to blow off steam and calm down.
- They’re often intended for children on the autism spectrum, but proponents say they can benefit any agitated student.
- There’s little independent research to show that sensory rooms work, these critics say.
WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — As students climbed, bounced and jumped their way around the brightly colored sensory room at Riverview Elementary School, located in Denville, New Jersey, Principal Tina Theodoropoulos beamed at how far the project had come.
Sensory rooms are designed to allow anxious students to blow off steam and calm down. They’re often intended for children on the autism spectrum, but proponents say they can benefit any agitated student — or a quiet one who needs inspiration to come out of a shell.
Theodoropoulos started the sensory room at her school from scratch in 2017, with donated items in an empty room. But using grants and PTA funding, the effort has grown into a $38,000 facility as big as Riverview’s gymnasium, complete with monkey bars, swing, rock-climbing wall, tunnel and more.
The township’s other elementary school, Lakeview, added its own sensory room this year, also for around $38,000. Surely, the principal thought, even more kids will benefit.
She wasn’t alone in that assumption. Across the nation, schools are spending thousands to build spaces where pupils can exercise, unwind and reflect as they seek calmer moods — all based on “sensory integration theory” promoted by designers and manufacturers of the rooms.
‘Made me feel heard’: Some people with autism finally feel seen. Here’s why.
But it’s not money well spent, say clinical experts and autism advocates. There’s little independent research to show that sensory rooms work, these critics say, just a sea of industry blogs relying on studies published by manufacturers.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in autism treatment,” said David Celiberti, executive director of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.
The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped districts from Southern California to Long Island from adding sensory rooms in recent years.
Museums and airports have incorporated the rooms as well.
Schools may spend tens of thousands of dollars to equip the rooms with assistive devices that can be purchased more cheaply elsewhere, said Christopher Manente, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Often, the gear is no more effective than what can be found on the school playground, he said.
Districts are falling prey to the “snake oil salesmanship” of companies that sell the equipment, he said.
“Educators, administrators and even parents tend to be vulnerable to these fads because their hearts are in the right place,” Manente said. “They desperately want to help these kids, so if there is something that seems like an easy solution, they jump on board.”
Sensory rooms spread across nation
Sensory rooms aren’t regulated in the U.S., according to the Autism Society of America. So it’s hard to quantify their reach. But the “fad” has been picking up speed in U.S. schools over the last 10 to 15 years, according to advocates, therapists and manufacturers.
Seth Kanor, CEO of Hawthorne, New York-based Enabling Devices, estimates that 20% of U.S. schools now have sensory rooms.
Enabling Devices sells toys and adaptive devices used in the rooms, including ball chairs, crash pads and light projectors. Kanor’s father, Steven Kanor, founded the company after noticing a child in a wheelchair sitting without a toy. Limited mobility made most toys useless, Steven Kanor realized.
The machinist from with a biomedical background soon returned to the boy with a toy train that had been rigged with a motion sensor switch, his son said. By straightening his head, the child could make the train go. By 1978, the adaptive-products company was born in Kanor’s basement.
Enabling Devices, which fulfills about 50 orders annually, tries to keep costs low for its customers, Seth Kanor said. But he knows other companies are handily profiting from the trend, he added.
The markup on a simple platform swing is just one example, said Enabling Devices’ product development specialist, Karen Gallichio. Schools can pay anywhere from $60 to $460 for the swings, though different models are essentially the same, she said.
“It’s still the Wild West in the world of sensory products,” Gallichio said.
Most sensory rooms are built and designed by small contractors, like Enabling Devices. United Kingdom-based Rompa Ltd., which did not respond to requests for comment, is one of the largest, with offices around the world and $44 million in revenue last year.
There’s little research on the effectiveness of such products for schools to go on, but manufacturers’ blogs and marketing materials are plentiful online.
Sensory rooms can “help an individual with sensory issues learn to regulate their brain’s negative reactions to external stimuli by developing coping skills for these experiences,” reads Enabling Devices’ blog.
Accommodating attractions: Sensory overload? Not at this theme park. What Sesame Place San Diego aims to do differently.
Yet there’s “no significant empirical evidence to support this statement — that access to a sensory room alone is an effective approach to reaching these outcomes,” said Rutgers’ Manente.
Schools should ask some key questions before investing in such products, he said: What is the source of students’ “negative reactions”? How do educators determine whether a student needs “calming”? And when educators strive to create a “fun,” rewarding place to decompress, are they encouraging students to leave classrooms whenever problems arise?
Asked about criticism of the blog, Enabling Devices CEO Kanor responded: “We do understand —and I think I mentioned this — that our products are best utilized when they are in the hands of the skilled OT’s and PT’s that we work with.”
Proponents of sensory rooms say they’re premised on “sensory integration therapy,” the idea that properly chosen physical activities and sensory stimulation, such as LED lights, can help a child moderate their mood and curb unwanted behaviors.
“There is nothing to support that idea,” Manente said. “It’s a baseless assumption.”
Taming ‘really strong emotions’
Still, educators like Theodoropoulos, the Denville principal, say they have seen the benefits firsthand. She’s seen students trapped in the sway of “really strong emotions” and with difficulty “self-regulating” who calm down after spending time in her room.
The sensory room she opened in the Riverview school five years ago started with stuffed animals and sensory lights, LEDs that can be tailored to the students’ tastes. She used her own money to add games and silly putty for kids to work out their tensions.
Therapists at the school made a chart to help students gauge their emotions. A red face indicates an angry or intense mood while blue illustrates a depressed or low-energy period.
“We gave them the language,” Theodoropoulos said. “Then they could pick a couple of things they could do in that room like jump on a trampoline or do some heavy lifting with a ball. People who found they were easily triggered could calm down in the room.”
Students, parents and teachers alike found it helpful, and the school decided to expand the project, she said. The sensory room moved to a larger space for the current school year.
Teachers and aides received training in how to use the equipment, which was opened up to all students in both elementary schools. Teachers can take classes to the rooms; students can take breaks there.
Developmental delays: Pandemic babies are behind after years of stress, isolation affected brain development
Theodoropoulos is aware of the critiques. She said sensory rooms can work if educators are aware of their potential pitfalls and constantly assess their effectiveness: “You have to be really mindful of how you set them up.”
The Denville schools are watching to make sure “wrong behaviors” aren’t being enforced, she added. She doesn’t want the “beautiful” room to become an “indoor playground.”
“Those also have wonderful benefits, but that’s not what I’m looking for,” Theodoropoulos said. “We want to help them learn to self-regulate. My own son has sensory issues, so I know that if you don’t do it properly you can end up with the opposite of what you intended.”
Escaping ‘tough demands’
Stephen Anderson is the CEO of the Summit Center in Getzville, New York, which offers 350 students on the autism spectrum “evidence-based” instruction. He’s more skeptical of the rooms. You won’t find one on his campus.
“I’ve never seen hard data on the value of sensory rooms and I don’t believe the people who use them have hard data,” he said.
Agitated students should be given an opportunity to calm down. But that can be done in the classroom with a toy or other calming materials, he said.
“I don’t believe there’s need for a kid to retreat from the classroom and into a sensory room, where there is a risk that you would reinforce the behavior you are trying to reduce,” Anderson said. “If I am agitated and upset, are you going to take me from my classroom and put me in a place where I enjoy hanging out?”
That would just be “an escape from tough demands,” he said.
The National Standards Project, conducted by the National Autism Center, studies behavioral interventions used by people with neurological disorders. It came away touting the need for more research into best practices.
While the project found evidence in favor of practices such as behavioral treatment and parent training, sensory rooms fell into the category of “unestablished interventions for which there is no sound evidence of effectiveness.”
“There is little or no evidence in the scientific literature that allows us to draw firm conclusions about their effectiveness. There is no reason to assume these interventions are effective. Further, there is no way to rule out the possibility these interventions are ineffective or harmful,” the NAC said in the report.
Autism New Jersey, the advocacy group, echoed that finding. On its own website, the group assigns red, green and yellow “lights” to various treatments based on scientific evidence.
Sensory integration therapy has a yellow light. “Preliminary evidence suggests ineffectiveness,” the group counsels.
Follow Gene Myers on Twitter: @myersgene.