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Discussion piece: Sensory rooms

10 February 2020

The Occupational Therapy team at Riverside Centre, Hillingdon are developing sensory rooms on their acute female and male wards. Initially introduced to Riverside Centre by Naomi Cooper and Norma Harrington, Senior Occupational Therapists, they've been continuing to develop the innovative use of sensory based assessments and interventions within the service – here is what Norma has to say to Brunel University Occupational Therapy (MSc) student Kelsey McLaurin:

What is a sensory room?

Sensory rooms are therapeutic spaces which have various items and environmental features for people to safely explore, stimulate or regulate their senses. A sensory room is carefully designed to ensure it composes of accessible items which can address each individual sensory modality i.e. visual, tactile, proprioception, auditory, vestibular, olfactory and gustatory senses. For example, a sensory room may have a bubble lamp to provide visual stimulation or a rocking chair to provide vestibular regulation.  Ultimately, sensory rooms create relaxing, failure-free environments which should be user-friendly to provide varying levels of stimulation depending on the person’s needs.

How do you think a sensory room would be beneficial for women in an acute psychiatric setting?

Sensory rooms are becoming increasingly widespread within mental health settings as they can provide people with tools to develop self-soothing techniques which support recovery. On our wards, Naomi Cooper and I promoted the use of sensory interventions to support people to address their sensory needs particularly to overcome experiences of distress or agitation. This supports people to carry on with their day and maintain their ability to engage in meaningful activities. I hope that by empowering the women on my ward to become actively involved in their care and identifying skills which they can use to support themselves on a regular basis within a safe space can help them to maintain a sense of well-being and occupational engagement.

How do you think the sensory room will promote recovery?

Sensory rooms encourage the development of self-management skills by providing people with an opportunity to explore their sensory needs and identify their own self-soothing routines. This can provide an increased sense of control and self-efficacy which is an important component of recovery! People can transfer these skills into their lives within the community post-discharge to support self-regulation and maintain engagement in meaningful roles and routines – increasing the potential for this intervention to support recovery and opportunity to reduce re-admission.

Do you think there is an importance of patient autonomy in requesting use of the sensory room or will it be more staff initiated?

It’s important that people who use our services are empowered by being actively involved in their care. Sensory interventions need to be readily accessible and requires active engagement to use it as a self-management strategy. To encourage patient autonomy, each person will first complete a user-friendly sensory assessment which we have co-produced on the ward. This supports people to develop their self-awareness regarding their own sensory needs and preferences. By having these therapeutic discussions, it supports people to get on board! While we are waiting for our sensory room to be fully developed, we are utilising sensory boxes which people are involved in creating through identifying meaningful items that they can use. Through utilising the Sensory Diet Exploration: Activity Checklist (Available as a free resource online: www.ot-innovations.com), we are also encouraging people to consider their sensory needs in relation to meaningful activities they engage in throughout the day to promote sensory regulation e.g. knitting provides tactile stimulation.

How do occupational therapists specifically draw on their knowledge when developing ideas of a sensory room? As holistic practitioners we understand the relationship between the individual, the environment, and the impact these have on engagement in meaningful activities. We also need to understand the relationship between a person’s sensory processing and environmental sensory stimuli to ensure sensory interventions are beneficial. This provides us with invaluable skills to identify ideas for a sensory room. We are also client-centred practitioners who understand that interventions such as a sensory room should address each person’s individual needs. We can therefore draw on our assessment and clinical reasoning skills to support the development of a sensory room which creates an environment which is beneficial for everyone who uses it.