So many places have multisensory rooms, perhaps you have one? Recently we have seen football stadiums, airports and even shopping centres installing multisensory rooms. The DfE (2015) require all special schools to have a multisensory room in order that they be considered adequate provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

It seems that everyone is convinced that multisensory rooms are a great idea for children with special educational needs. Presumably this conviction is backed by hard evidence from research?

Sadly not.

It seems likely that the faith we collectively have in multisensory rooms is based more on marketing materials for the rooms than from peer reviewed research. Of course there is also powerful personal testimony. Without doubt, many people have had wonderful experiences within multisensory rooms, but the risk of basing general provision on the experiences of individuals, is that no matter how powerful those experiences have been, we do not know that they will generalise. This is where research steps in. Good research will look at the amazing experiences of individuals to see if those experiences were a one-off or if they are indicative of greater application. At a time of reducing budgets, we would hope that the provisions dictated by the government as being essential, all had a firm evidence base within the research archives. Presumably multisensory rooms have a strong evidence base?

Sadly not.

Researchers report that there is “no methodologically sound research” that endorses the use of multisensory rooms. Exploring the research archives myself, I quickly spotted the methodological weaknesses they are referring to: some studies were so poor as to be funny. I remember one study that was seeking to find out whether the multisensory room, newly installed in a setting, was having a positive effect. The researchers took people in the setting to the multisensory room to see how they got on in there. Some people did not like the room and would become distressed when asked to go there. As they were not able to take part in the research they were dropped from the study. The study concluded that multisensory rooms had a positive impact on 100% of people!

Multisensory rooms used to cost a few hundred pounds, a thousand, two thousand at most. Nowadays they are priced in the thousands and it is not uncommon for me to hear of rooms that cost over a million pounds! I think far more important than the question of whether they are having a positive impact, is the question of whether, even if that impact is real, they are worth the price tags we are paying. What else could that money be spent on?

I have just concluded an 18-month research project that fed into my book “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”. Part of my research explored the features that affect the impact of a multisensory room. It identified 12 key factors that influence how much benefit users of multisensory rooms got from them.

Here are a couple of those factors, all obvious when we think of them, but very worth considering when seeking to get the most out of our multisensory room or indeed any other specialist provision or equipment we have at our disposal.

Timetabling – Many people I interviewed in my research explained that timetabling issues meant their ability to reap the benefits of their multisensory rooms were limited. For example, people who had the session at the end of the school day had to interrupt it to sort out coats and bags; those who had the session just before lunch found engagement disrupted by hungry tummies; others had so short a slot on the timetable that by the time they’d arrived and got comfortable, it was time to go.

If you have an amazing piece of equipment that you are sharing with others, do not let sloppy timetabling ruin it for everyone.

Interruptions – Many of the teachers I interviewed as a part of my research explained that it was not the features of the multisensory room that made it a powerful learning environment for their students, it was simply that when they were in the multisensory room, they did not get interrupted. In their classrooms, people popped in to give them messages or borrow equipment, specialists arrived to take children to particular therapies. As well as interruptions from outside, there were also the interruptions from within: with a class working in groups, a student from one group would stray into another and need redirecting. In the sensory room, a group could work in a focused and uninterrupted way and that made learning powerful.

Rather than dream about installing a dark room with a bubble tube, perhaps consider whether a small cupboard or room could be utilised as a ‘no interruptions’ room in which small groups could work in a focused way.

If you have a multisensory room, celebrate it and ensure you are using it effectively. The room, no matter how wonderful or well-equipped, is not magic: it cannot do the work alone, you need to be informed, trained and have access to creative ideas for how to use that room.

If you have not got a multisensory room, fear not. Watch out for next month’s article to learn about alternative sensory spaces!

Readers curious to know more may be interested in Joanna’s book: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic” published by Routledge


About the author

Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: "Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic"“Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”“Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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