What is a sensory room?
A sensory room or sensory integration room is designed to provide calm, focus, and comfort to people with sensory processing problems, which often includes people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5, mentions the atypical response to specific stimuli in people on the spectrum. This is described as “hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.”
More specifically, kids on the spectrum may be hyper-sensitive to harsh lighting, strong odors, and loud music. While sensory issues can vary, there are general aspects that apply to most kids..
Sensory rooms are used in autism clinics and occupational therapy offices. Some can be simple and practical, while others can be more elaborate and high-tech. Seeing a sensory room or space in your kid’s clinic can help you come up with sensory room ideas and learn how to build a sensory room at home.
How to come up with sensory room ideas on a budget
If you are trying to create a sensory room on a budget, it’s important to note you do not need to spend an arm and a leg for sensory items. Some sensory or calming products can be overpriced, and there are dozens of alternatives that are more economical. You can find many products and materials in craft stores suitable for serving as sensory room supplies for your project.
To discover great calming bedroom ideas, start with assessing your child. What do they like or dislike when it comes to sensory stimuli in their rooms? Do they mind being touched, or does he/she avoid it? Does he/she like the night light turned on or off? Are there specific sights, sounds, and smells he/she cannot tolerate? Knowing these details about their sensory preferences will determine the things you need for a sensory bedroom that works.
In an interview with Autism Parenting Magazine, licensed Interior Designer and founder of Sensory Interior Design Carol Felder said she believes creating a sensory room needs to be holistic.
The biggest mistake parents make when creating a sensory space is thinking it has to be expensive. According to Felder: “Parents are overwhelmed with many decisions that revolve around the care of their child. Spending money without a plan and the proper guidance in an attempt to make things better can have undesired results as does thinking the ‘look’ of a child’s bedroom is secondary to more pressing needs.”
What should be in a sensory room?
With these in mind, here are some items and products you can include in your very own sensory space without the need for an occupational therapist. These suggestions are based on the needs of kids with sensory processing disorder.
Weighted blankets are heavier blankets designed to provide deep pressure that helps children feel hugged and comforted. These blankets are known to help kids with ASD sleep better. Weighted blankets have different weights for different age groups. Mosaic has a selection of weighted blankets for children and adults with special needs.
For a budget-friendly option, you can DIY a weighted blanket out of a thick, regular blanket by filling it with stuffing beads and sewing them in. You will need sewing supplies and equipment for this task.
Tactile pillows have a more definite feel and texture than regular pillows. If your child finds textures comforting, he/she might like tactile pillows as a part of his/her sensory bedroom. These tactile sequin pillows from National Autism Resources come in beautiful sea-themed designs.
A small study reveals children with autism experience problems with light sensitivity in their classrooms and have trouble concentrating on their tasks because of it. In the study, they expressed physical discomfort and anxiety from the room’s lighting.
At home, regular lighting like fluorescent lights and bright lamps may not help a child with autism feel calm and ready for sleep. Parents have found sensory lights and sensory lamps like bubble lamps and lava lamps can do wonders for easing their child into sleep and rest.
Instead of a night light, you can use a fiber-optic light that doubles as a curtain. This one from Amazon can change to eight different hues and is waterproof. If you can’t find this product, using regular lights with an option for dimming or changing the color is an alternative for sensory room lighting that can create calming colors for autism.
Neat and accessible storage bins
children with autism can experience sensory overload, even with their toys and gadgets. Having storage bins that are organized, labeled, and easily accessible can help a child clear his/her space and avoid getting overwhelmed with too much stuff.
These storage bins are perfect for children to slide open and close while keeping the contents out of sight, preventing them from getting distracted when they should be doing something else. These ones from Fun and Function are meant for classrooms but would work great in the bedroom too.
Soothing sounds or music
Some children on the spectrum like listening to repetitive sounds while others prefer soft music. Whatever your child likes, there are dozens of sensory equipment for creating a sense of calm and peace in the bedroom.
For playing sounds and music, a regular CD player would do. However, there are white noise machines if this is more suited to your child. If your child does not want to hear loud noises coming from outside the home, noise-reduction headphones might help.
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A sensory bed and mattress
Choosing the right mattress for your child can significantly improve his/her sleep patterns. If you find your child wakes up in the middle of the night, it might be caused by discomfort from his/her bed’s mattress.
There is no specific mattress that defines what makes a “sensory bed,” so this is something you and your child should discover. Visit a few mattress stores and try out different types of materials.
Memory foam mattresses are popular, but not necessarily a good choice for all children on the spectrum. If your child is a “bed jumper,” consider a sturdier mattress that can take the pressure and lessen the bounce. Companies like Norix and Autism Sleeps make mattresses designed for children and adults with special needs.
Sensory room toys
Children with autism take a while to wind down and play after a busy day. While establishing a bedtime routine can help, sometimes all they need is one last “play” time before finally going to bed.
Unlike other toys your child might have, sensory toys are designed to ease tension in children and increase focus and awareness. A weighted stuff animal is great for putting on a child’s lap while reading a bedtime story, while a relaxing fidget toy like the Tactile Tangle Relax makes for a quick, quiet hand activity.
A sensory bedroom won’t be complete without wall decorations that help create a calming sensory room. You can use different materials to make pictures or collages and have your child help in the process. While there is lots of commercially available wall decor online, you can DIY and get sensory wall ideas from boards like this in Pinterest.
The goal of a sensory wall is to create comfort and calm for your child. Note the cost of materials is modest. You can create a lovely wall on a budget and still meet your child’s sensory needs.
These days, there is no shortage of information and resources to come up with calming sensory room ideas. Join a Facebook group, talk to other parents, or check Pinterest, and you’ll get lots of insights. What’s important is that you know what your child prefers and how he/she will benefit from a sensory-friendly room.
How Sensory Experiences Affect Adolescents with an Autistic Spectrum Condition within the Classroom. May 2016. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-015-2693-1
DSM-5: Autism Society. Retrieved from: https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/diagnosis/diagnostic-classifications/
Top Ideas to Create a Calming Sensory Bedroom Space. Retrieved from: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sensory-room-ideas/
Autism Parenting Magazine tries to deliver honest, unbiased reviews, resources, and advice, but please note that due to the variety of capabilities of people on the spectrum, information cannot be guaranteed by the magazine or its writers. Medical content, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained within is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within.