A young man in a green T-shirt rushed into the deep-blue calming space and seated himself before the five-foot-tall bubble tube, turning it on and off and greeting each color change with audible glee.
An older, sharply dressed man, in polo shirt, slacks and red socks, took a chair and positioned it as far away from the TV monitor as he could, then sat and quietly watched video feedback of himself with the kind expression of a bemused uncle.
A large young man in a red T-shirt anxiously strode through the room, quickly covering its 80-foot length and back, before deciding he wasn’t where he wanted to be and exiting quickly.
Each person with autism is unique with their own blend of strengths, weaknesses, and desires. The Sensory Thinkery Gym at the Austin State Supported Living Center in the Texas capital, has the features—and the patience—for all of them. The gym is part of the living center and serves its nearly 200 residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. About one-third of the residents at the state center is on the autism spectrum.
Since the 1970s, multi-sensory rooms have been used to help those with disabilities in a wide variety of ways including developing senses, improving coordination, stimulating creativity and communication, and reducing unwanted behaviors by working through emotions and reactions to external stimuli.
When occupational therapist and sensory specialist Teresa Beck arrived on campus six years ago, she wanted to expand the sensory opportunities beyond small displays in campus homes.
“When we were first thinking about creating a sensory space for campus, we really wanted a place that was sensory-rich, but not overwhelming,” she said.
There was no shortage of space on the 95-acre, century-old campus, but many of the old buildings are no longer in use. Eventually, an opportunity came open and, with the help of a group of California high school students on a service mission, Beck led the way as other rehabilitation specialists converted a former workshop in an 80-year-old building into a homemade wonderland for sensory stimulation.
When they were done, there was a garden corner and a beach-themed corner. There were marbles and lights and balls and tactile sensations of every kind. The materials are made to be touched and manipulated. The smell of lemongrass hangs in the air beneath the blue-tinted lights and multi-hued ceiling tiles.
“We wanted a very bright, but calming feeling,” Beck said.
During the two years the Sensory Thinkery Gym has been open at the Austin State Supported Living Center, Beck has helped not just residents, but the team members who care for them. During a recent long discussion, four key themes that will benefit everyone who cares for people who have autism emerged.
1. Give children time to adjust
Parents of children with autism know the disappointment of creating a special treat or gift or excursion for their child only to have them reject it outright.
Beck says patience is the key. They often need “time to decompress.” She told the story of a resident who uses a wheelchair whose caretakers assured her that he would have no interest in the sensory options. For 20 minutes, he just pushed himself in circles, and then, to the shock of his caretakers, he started engaging with his surroundings.
“He needed 20 minutes to acclimate to being here and then decided it was safe, and he could do anything he wanted,” Beck remarked. “Sometimes, they just need to take time.”
2. Turn a no into a yes
Beck told the story of a resident who did not like to leave his campus home. When taken on excursions he would throw things, not out of frustration, but because he had learned that would get him sent home, which was where he wanted to be.
When he arrived at the sensory gym, he began to throw things, and Beck started handing him things to throw –encouraging him. He was so taken aback that he forgot his protest and began to look around.
“It’s not about saying ‘no’ all the time,” Beck said. “It’s how can we say ‘yes’ and still give them what they need.
“If someone wants to run, if they want to hit things, there are safe opportunities to do that. When you’re in the moment it’s a lot easier to say ‘no, no, no, stop.’ And we want to be able to say ‘yeah, how can we do that?’”
Click here to find out more
3.Work to engage with and challenge them
There are very few chairs in the Sensory Thinkery Gym. Beck wants to make sure team members are up and working with the residents.
“It’s more than just come and sit, It’s come in and engage,” she said. “See what they are doing and then help them add more to it.”
Often, it’s challenging enough getting through the routine of the day. But to learn how to engage with the residents in a different way is a benefit to both resident and caregiver.
“You need to be able to meet them where they are at and in a way that takes into consideration their strengths and weaknesses,” Beck said. “This is especially true for individuals with sensory integration issues as their senses process input differently.
“Once you make that connection, it is important to challenge them as that is the only way anyone can grow and develop their true potential.”
4. If everything else doesn’t work …
Every person with autism is unique – but a few interests do seem to span a good portion of the spectrum.
In the introduction, you met the older man who was drawn to the video feedback monitor. Beck says that seeing themselves on a video display is a huge draw for many of the residents.
“A lot of the research shows that video feedback is very helpful for learning for individuals who are on the spectrum,” Beck said. “What I love about that is when certain people get in front of it, they will have conversations, they will engage with you if they can see you in the camera versus face-to-face. Face-to-face is more threatening to them, but in the monitor, they are able to handle that.”
The ace in the hole, however, is always the swinging, spinning chair. The campus has many swings, but this is the only one that spins.
“Most of the individuals with autism are drawn directly to that swing,” Beck said. “I would say almost every single one of them at some point are drawn to it. They love that it has that rotary component.”
One of the residents, an older man who was mostly blind, came in one day and the staff seated him in the swing, simply because they thought he needed to sit down. But when he discovered he could move himself, he began to spin himself in circles and soon he was giggling, then laughing.
“His staff was amazed,” Beck relayed. “They said, ‘we’ve never even seen him smile before!’”
As the understanding and treatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities expands, the Sensory Thinkery Gym at the state center is a new frontier in care and therapy.
“It’s something unique,” says Beck. “What I started in some of the homes was very small and with this we can reach a lot more people. It’s something we want to constantly be evolving.”
This article was featured in Issue 102 – Supporting ASD Needs Everyday