What Are The Benefits Of A Multi-Sensory Environment (MSE)?

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In the late 1970's, two Dutch psychologists developed the idea of Snoezelen Rooms, initially as a therapy for those with learning disabilities. Over time this initial idea has merged with the use of a wide range of multi-sensory stimulation to provide special environments for people with a variety of disabilities, disorders and conditions including dementia, autism, intellectual disability, brain injury, chronic pain, and for those in palliative care. The terms Snoezelen Rooms, White Rooms and Multi-Sensory Rooms tend to be used interchangeably but, as the term "Snoezelen" is now a registered trademark of an English sensory equipment supplier, we prefer to use the name Multi-Sensory Room or Multi-Sensory Environment.

Multi-Sensory Rooms and the equipment in them are designed to create a stimulating and yet calming atmosphere. They can be set up for children or adults of all ages and can be installed for therapy and education, or for recreation and leisure. There are about six commonly used types of multi-sensory rooms. These include the white room, dark room, sound room, interactive room, water room, and soft play room.  Outdoor environments have also been developed including multi-sensory gardens. These environments have many similarities, and their differences are based on the specific population they are designed for and the aims that the provision of the environment is designed to achieve.

Most Multi-Sensory Environments (MSEs) typically have bubble tubes, special lighting with a projector to cast slow-moving images or colors around the walls, a mirror ball with spotlight and fiber-optic sprays. There may be or other lamps, music or sound equipment and aromatherapy materials. A variety of tactile items can be provided, such as cushions and vibrating pillows, as well as special hanging chairs and massage chairs. Panels with a variety of textures such as rough surfaces, stiff bristles, smooth or contoured mirrors, beads, or soft and squishy items are often also included. Activity walls can be custom built to provide a range of tactile, as well as electronic audiovisual stimulation. Fans or bubble blowers sometimes feature, as well as ball pools, water beds, adaptive swings or vibrating mattresses. Thus there is equipment to provide visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory stimulation. 

As Multi-Sensory Environments are often be used for more active activities as well as relaxation, much of the equipment can be designed or modified to provide switch interactivity.  Special switches to suit the physical abilities of users can be used to start or modify the behavior of the equipment, thus changing the sensory experience. This allows the rooms to be used in active programs, where switch skills, cause-effect understanding, concentration and memory abilities can be developed in a fun, focused environment.

The idea of an MSE is to provide stimulation, and yet be calming. It aims to provide a "failure-free" experience, allowing pleasurable stimulation without the need for verbal abilities or requiring specific outcomes. The focus is to help the user of the room to gain maximum pleasure from the sensory activity they and their career are involved in.

The approach to using an Multi-Sensory Environment is generally non-directive, without the need for intellectual or verbally mediated activity in terms of following instructions or rules, and regular exposure seems to be more effective. Essentially, one would allow the user of the space the time and opportunity to experience at their own pace what the room has to offer. One may not use or activate immediately all equipment that the room has available, but gradually introduce more of the sensory stimulation, allowing the cues given by the client to guide the career.

The time in the Multi-Sensory Environment should be client-focused, with the wishes of that individual determining the activity. Their attention, interest and expressions of pleasure or displeasure are the basis for participation in the Multi-Sensory Environment. Obviously the responses to the experience of the room will be highly individual and careers need to be sensitive to the client, suspending their expectations and judgments, closely monitoring any responses they notice in their clients. For example, a client with dementia and poor eyesight may be frightened by a "flying" bird in the Multi-Sensory Environments, while another whose vision is not impaired may be delighted by the same projected image. Some may find soft colors projected onto the walls soothing, but become confused by pictures. Music may be pleasurable for some clients, but too stimulating for others. In another situation, one who is tactile defensive will not want to touch or even have near them any tactile stimuli, and should not be pushed with this, but allowed to explore other aspects of the Multi-Sensory Environment. Over time, and perhaps being close to others and watching them touch and enjoy the tactile stimulation, this client may begin to feel safe enough to give this sensory experience a try.

The specific benefits of Multi-Sensory Rooms are hard to assess. There are countless anecdotal reports of improved mood, fewer disruptive behaviors, decreased anxiety and fear, improved communication and enhanced interpersonal interactions. However, rigorous scientific studies are relatively few. This is probably because Multi-Sensory Environment can be so varied in what they contain and provide, and are used in so many different ways with a broad range of users that it becomes impossible to control all the variables required for a stringent study. It would seem that some behaviors, such as aggression and self-injury do improve, especially whilst the client is in the Multi-Sensory Environment. Some evidence suggests that challenging behaviors in dementia may be reduced after Multi-Sensory Environment experiences. If the reader is interested in following up on the research, it is best to look at internet sites dealing with "Snoezelen" rooms and also ones regarding specific disorders such as dementia or autism. This can give access to the latest scientific evidence with reference to particular behaviors and contexts.

Meanwhile, reports continue to flow in, detailing the positive effects of exposure to Multi-Sensory Rooms, and not just for direct clients of special schools or nursing homes. We have been told of the positive changes that have been effected in staff to client interactions in a variety of settings. It would seem that in the Multi-Sensory Environment both the career and the client can simply experience something pleasant together, which has the effect of reducing the pressure and stress sometimes felt in normal day to day interactions. Thus Multi-Sensory Environments may be of benefit to staff as well as clients. Another unexpected positive report from the aged care area has been that the Multi-Sensory Environment has helped with visits by family to dementia sufferers, especially when grandchildren come. The Multi-Sensory Environment has provided a venue where the visiting family  have been able to enjoy a time and space together with the dementia suffering relative, making the visit more pleasurable all around and thereby increasing the likelihood that visits will be repeated. Such an outcome is surely worthwhile at many levels.

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