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Creating a sensory friendly Play or therapy room for a child with Autism

Updated on November 7, 2011

Therapy or Play areas designed to provide the best types of stimulation.

Welcome to part 2 of my designing a sensory friendly environment of kids with special needs series! If you have not already seen part one, an introduction to the concepts and creating a calm bedroom, I strongly suggest starting reading it first as it focuses on calming bedrooms. Personally I feel that it is more important to begin with a calming area so that the child may have a retreat and a place to cool down after or between stimulating play or therapy.

In this article I will give you some tips on setting up a play or therapy room in the home geared at focusing the child's energy (which children with ASD often have an excess of!) on productive activities that encourage developmental growth, supplement regular therapies and social interaction. Additionally, if you have in home therapy, it will give you a basic idea of how to begin setting up the room although you should be sure to get input from all of the therapists to be certain that their needs are met as well. The design of this area should take certain things into account to maximize the child's experience such as color, organization, restriction of access to certain items, bulky therapy equipment, different types of stimuli and you should understand what areas need to be targeted.

Depending upon how much you intend to cover, the cost for a play/ therapy room can range from $1000 to over $100,000. I will share some money saving tips and help you to prioritize. Be aware that if the child needs special equipment you should wait to buy it- talk to the child's doctor and therapists and have them submit a request for insurance to cover it. Often insurance denies the FIRST request, if you resubmit they may agree so don't give up right away!

How do you make or build a sensory friendly room?

Careful understanding your child's needs and planning are the most important steps

Display their achievements to encourage them!

You should use cork board strips or metal plates with magnets to display your child's work- they are most effective when the child's work is eye level for them. They may do a lot of practice cutting with scissors, writing letters etc for OT. We mounted the cut outs that my son had done on construction paper for display- the gluing process was therapeutic as well!

We found that the more of his work he saw, the more he wanted to participate in the therapy.

Bulky Items and planning for their location - Crash mats, Barrels, Bolsters, Balls, Wedges, Sensory tables, Desks, Chairs, Stairs,Tables and Swings can be awkwa

Do you know what your child will be using yet? If you are new at this I would recommend clearing out a closet and designating it for these items- if you end up not needing the space, you will have a nice clean closet! We were able to completely fill a 5x 6 ft closet with these items. The mats can be stored behind a couch if there is one in the room (depending upon the type of mat) some can be folded (not all) some can be slid under a bed and some can be incorporated into the overall design of the room and left in place.

Personally I leave out a floor mat and have a 6 inch mat secured to the wall with velcro- you can also arrange the velcro in such a way that you can remove the mat from the wall and replace it with a picture with corresponding velcro on the back, making it only a semi permanent fixture!

We keep the nesting barrel out and when not in use it is somewhat like a table for displaying stuffed animals. We opted for a door mount swing as opposed to a freestanding one and are awaiting approval from our homeowners association for a built in in the yard. Balls get irritating! They care easy to arrange nicely, but an excited child or even dog often leaves you tripping over them- we got a rubbermaid ball organizer with rubber straps on the front- I would worry about strangulation with smaller or more profoundly affected children, but this organizer can also be wall mounted out of reach!

I try to group the items together by desired effect and have mini stations but the challenge is that this is a central area in our home, it should be comfortable for everyone and a place that the child enjoys going! This room is also my "office" and my son's study area.

A few of the common bulky items

Variflex 38-Inch Mini Band Trampoline
Variflex 38-Inch Mini Band Trampoline

Trampolines are one of the crucial pieces of sensory therapy equipment and many of the smaller ones are relatively easy to store! These provide excellent vestibular stimulation and are perfect for kids with autism who spend a lot of time spinning, hand flapping or bouncing. When used frequently, the trampoline helps them to achieve the stimulation that they were trying to cheive with their stimming so you may notice a decline in stimming habits after about 2 weeks of regular use. Bouncing on the trampoline is also an excellent way to reward effort for sedentary activities such as fine motor or even homework!

 
GSC Incline Learning Form Mat
GSC Incline Learning Form Mat

These inclines or wedges are commonly used for kids who crave proprioceptive input. If your child likes to fall or crash then they may enjoy mats of various shapes and sizes. You should ask your child's OT for specific exercises for your child as there are many uses. Many kids get a great proprioceptive burst by standing at the low end and collapsing either backwards or forwards onto the wedge. The angle is also great in improving their reaction tiimes/ depth perception during falls.

 
Bonded Foam Gymnastics Mat - 4' x 8' x 2" Blue by ORBRING
Bonded Foam Gymnastics Mat - 4' x 8' x 2" Blue by ORBRING

You can not go wrong with a soft mat! There are too many uses to list them all, but we leave ours up against a wall for vertical crashing and have one down on the floor for horizontal crashing. The child may enjoy log rolling, jumping or even laying on the mat during activities such as Wilbager Brushing Protocol or joint compressions.

 
CHILLY SWING RELAXING OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY SWING
CHILLY SWING RELAXING OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY SWING

The chilly provides exceptional vestibular input and is amazingly calming. Even the most active child with autism tends to melt into a floppy bundle of contentedness while enjoying the swing! These swings are great because they are designed for indoor use so you do not have to worry about behavior outbursts at the park! The additional support makes them far more effective than a traditional swing as the child is able to truly relax and enjoy the moment!

 

Please remember that children with sensory problems often have different triggers and cravings!

Try to figure out the best colors to stimulate your child without overstimulating by bringing them some swatches or finding household objects- watch until you the the reaction and behavior you are aiming for- repeat this test on multiple separate days when the child is in different moods. Make a chart if you must to find the best choice!

Color is important - Again- not about style, it is about a desired effect!

Avoid white except for ceiling, trim and doors! Off white can be ok, but I would recommend a color. Whites in general tend to be a bit harsh. In this room, you would want something cheery, warm, but not distracting. We have not painted this room yet in this house as we only recently moved, however in the next few weeks we will be painting it a rich bluish gray, we found one that feels warm which is challenging with grays. We added the bluish to it to make more stimulating. We will actually be using a "Stargate" theme- my husband loves stargate, my son loves anything like it....

I recommend sticking with blues, greens, rusty colors etc but might avoid red- only because it is known to make moods more intense- if the child becomes angry, regaining control may be more difficult. Yellow is tricky- some kids get hyper. Gray (cool gray) is known to reduce distraction but does not offer much stimulation- it would be a great choice if the equipment and furniture is brightly colored as it would help to balance the amount of visual stimulation. It is ok to use more than one color, but keep it reasonable! The design should not be too busy- if you do stripes be sure that at least one of the colors is very broadly striped. We have done murals in the past- a simple city skyline at the bottom 3 feet of the wall, buildings and trees only.

This room should be stimulating, but not distracting!

The color our therapy room will be. We bought this house only a few months ago

The color our therapy room will be. We bought this house only a few months ago
The color our therapy room will be. We bought this house only a few months ago

Give the room a little color!

Try to determine also whether you will be wanting flat, satin, eggshell, semi gloss or glossy. Personally, we usually go with either a semi gloss or a glossy because they are SO very wipeable (we have a child with autism and two large drooly dogs and, well.... my husband). I reserve the glossy for bathroom, laundry and kitchen and stick to a semi gloss throughout the rest of the house.

Speech and social

It is important to try to have things readily available or that you can even incorporate into the décor to encourage speech and social growth.. Here are a few items that I have found that are practical, educational/therapeutic and can be (with a little creativity) incorporated into a design to help your child with speech or social problems.

I recommend that ANYTHING therapeutic you use in your home should be incorporated into the décor as much as possible because it is your HOME- not a doctor's office. Partly for your and your child's sanity, but also because if guests feel awkward or put off by being surrounded in therapy equipment, they may be less inclined to return or get to know your family better because this can be very overwhelming. Social isolation can make the situation much worse.

Theme the room!

But be careful- be sure it is something your child can grow into or that you can easily and inexpensively remove or replace!

Kids love themed rooms! If they are receiving therapy in this room or learning, it should be a place that they want to be. If they enjoy Thomas the Tank engine for example you could easily and affordably get some 2-4 oz cans of paint samples as a home improvement store and using masking tape- create a track- maybe like a chair rail height.... get creative, but don't spend your life's savings on the theme, kids with ASD keep their obsessions for a long time, but they may flip like a switch or instead of character trains become obsessed with real trains.

Papier mache knick knacks help as well- they are close to free if you have the stuff around the house. Light switch covers can be an affordable way to accent a theme as well. We use a lot of my son's toys as décor to save on costs- it was hard to get him to learn to put them away as a display, but now he enjoys it and takes pride in rotating his special exhibit pieces!

Ran out of room to display their work?

Have them help you create a coffee table scrapbook! Aside from the child seeing how far they have come, you will have a record of their developmental progress that you can look at any time! We typically saw the progress after about 6 months to a year for each little goal, so don't be discouraged!

Storage to encourage speech - Clear totes with tricky lids are your best bet

Using clear storage bins to put away toys can encourage speech. Make sure that you either buid a shelf out of reach of the child or that the bins are difficult to open. The purpose of the CLEAR storage bin is that the child can see what they want but they can not just grab it. They must communicate their desire in some way, whether sign, speech or an improved effort at either. Just act like you do not know what they want, point to other storage bins and say "this one?" and if they scream say "no, not that one" If they smile when you get to the right one- say "yes, this one!"- keep modelling and take a little longer "finding" and retrieving the box each time, gently prompting them to try the words themselves. If they do not smile or give some indication of what they are looking for, bring the totes closer to them (do not open them) and encourage any appropriate response whether a smile, a clap, sign or speech before giving them the toy.

As they learn what you are trying to make them do, they will get better at it- the words themselves will still be challenging, but some form of communication is more likely to occur.

Textured Area Rugs or Padded floor tile?

Either works- see what your child likes

Both offer different benefits and it really depends upon your child and your existing floor. If you have room for both go for it! Textured rugs may bother the child- if they do, get a very small one and secure it in a walkway. This way they will not be forced to spend much time on it but will be exposed to it regularly- the goal being desensitization to that texture. Try to ensure socks or shoes in the beginning, then advance to bare feet when walking over it!

If the child likes the texture of the rug, try to keep it in an area that they will be spending time like fine motor practice area or floortime.

The padded tiles are great too! They offer little sensory challenge and are comfy.

Measuring Progress in ASD is different

I consider a huge leap in progress to be anything that my child could not do before. My son is 7 years old, we are working on Buttons! He got a few last week so I am quite confident that soon we will conquer that battle!

Basic Idea of our current layout- I tried using word to make this, some things are missing sorry!

Basic Idea of our current layout- I tried using word to make this, some things are missing sorry!
Basic Idea of our current layout- I tried using word to make this, some things are missing sorry!

Furniture

must be practical and stimulating!

If you already have furniture in the room and don't want to make changes then just try to be sure it is arranged in a practical way allowing for areas in which to do Wilbarger brushing and joint compressions (a place the child can lay) room for floortime activities, space for jumping and rolling, crashing etc and an area for the child to sit and practice writing (once the child is compliant the floor is no longer ideal- a desk at the proper height with a chair that promotes good posture will be necessary).

If you have furniture that you are willing to modify, paint or refinish you should pick a color that will be somewhat stimulating but not "loud". A fun way to handle the furniture colors is white furniture with different bold colored knobs or handles for each type of activity (blue handles on the piece for fine motor, green on the piece for educational, red for speech etc...) if you are using open shelves you can even paint the side of the shelf facing out the corresponding color! This helps the child understand their routine more easily and can be incorporated into their schedule (red time slot for speech time etc.).

If you have a couch- slipcovers are a great way to make the room more fun. I have even gotten solid colored slipcovers in the past and sewn on characters from old sheets or clothes! This helps the child truly feel that this is a room they want to be in without creating chaos. The other benefit to slipcovers (aside from protecting the couch) is that you can then remove them if you need the room to be a bit more "adult" for an evening or if the child changes to a new favorite theme!

Have you designed a play or therapy room keeping specific sensory needs in mind?

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Any more suggestions for the play or therapy area?

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    • profile image

      Tam 2 years ago

      As soon as this timer arrived I didn't think it would last, and I was right. Currently we use a big, old loud bell kethcin timer to limit my son's TV and computer time. I wanted to try a visual timer as I heard it was great for kids on the Autism spectrum as they don't really understand the concept of time passing. I chose this one because it also had an audible alarm so he would hear it if he was concentrating on something else. Right out of the box the thing felt so light and cheap I couldn't imagine letting my 3.5 year old touch it. Basically the red part that shows time passing is a thin piece of plastic you dial around the clock part and the alarm is so quiet it might as well not be there. You certainly can't hear it from another room-it's just a tiny beep beep . Still, I'd heard great things so I gave it a try. My son mostly ignored it, but the thing still broke when he wasn't even playing with it. The flimsly red thing kept coming off line and getting stuck. Within a week it stopped counting down the minutes, but would just beep for no reason. I had it sitting on my dresser and I just gave up on when my son found it and promptly ripped the red part right in half (the plastic was that thin and flimsy that he ripped it like a candy wrapper.) Now I'm sure I can't return it and it was a huge waste of money. Good concept, but they need to make a stronger product, especially if it's going to be anywhere near a kid.

    • Spiderlily321 profile image

      Spiderlily321 4 years ago

      Great lens. Featured on my "are you the parent of a child with special needs?" lens. thanks for sharing

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      What an amazing blog post here. Our neighbor's kid has autism, I am buzzing around the web to see what I can do to help them - I will pass this on.

    • malena10 profile image

      malena10 5 years ago

      Great lens, thanks for sharing! Absolutely helpful informations.

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      I think I need a therapy room. Nice and quiet, reasonably dark, all natural wood, and with a great stereo. All kidding aside - an excellent article on creating a sensory friendly environment.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 5 years ago from United States

      This is truly an awesome resource of information! Blessed!

    • DominicWoodfield profile image

      Dave Woodfield 5 years ago

      nice lens :) i wrote this article the other day about the difficulties of diagnosing autism: have a look if you're interested!

      http://www.squidoo.com/doctors-and-diagnosing-auti...

    • profile image

      dellgirl 6 years ago

      Very interesting lens, so well put together. I learned something new today. Thank you for sharing this interesting information.

      Have a wonderful week.

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 6 years ago

      I guess because I've lived with the most unorganized (or lazy) adults in the world, I have been the one who figured out clear containers and keeping things in order (not perfect). Since I was so sleep deprived (went back to work when my daughter was only 3 months old and breast fed for over 2 years - had to pump milk on my lunch hour, etc), I accidentally designed her bedroom in soft pastels and nothing stimulating (just Baby Einstein lullaby music). For my own sanity, I had to design rooms for specific purposes, is the real reason. I'm glad to see your methods are quite similar. Oh and color really does affect mood..I firmly believe that. Great lens, as always.

      Sincerely,

      Rose

    • profile image

      Torenada 6 years ago

      I recently went to an autism workshop, and they definitely talked about the effect of different colors. Fascinating stuff! Thanks!

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 6 years ago from California

      Color is a good point, it works for me.