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New room at Lower Burrell school offers relief for students on autism spectrum

December 17, 2017 GMT

A newly created room at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell is providing play with a purpose.

It’s called the Sensory Therapy Room, which was implemented this fall on campus after several years of planning.

The room’s goal is to provide sensory relief for about 12 students on the autism spectrum and in the special education department.

Veteran special education teacher Pamela Sawhook offers more than 40 years of teaching experience and was instrumental in designing the space that she called “an important need.”

Grant money, donations from supporters and previously budgeted district funds financed the room’s sensory supplies.

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“The room can simply provide a safe and calm environment to prevent and reduce occurrences, regroup and support de-escalation,” Sawhook said.

“What we find with kids on the autism spectrum is that there is a lot of stimuli in our environment, and a lot of times they have a difficult time processing it and really adjusting to the school day.”

Students typically visit the room two at a time for 10-minute breaks twice daily, said Sawhook.

Second-graders Devin Cochran and Shea Linnabary enjoy visiting “next door,” the nickname some students use for the space.

“It helps us concentrate on our homework,” Shea said. “I like that there’s fun stuff to do.”

Various play station areas — movement, tactile, calming and sensory — are organized around the room, encouraging students to engage in exercise and free play with sensory items that encourage tactile (using their hands) skills.

On one table, students may select from weighted compression items such as vests and lap pads.

“These compression items seem to be very effective in adjusting to the stimuli that is coming to them,” Sawhook said.

The most popular activity is the kinetic sand table.

Different than regular sandbox sand, this weighted sand used for play is heavier, more malleable and easily formed into shapes.

“It provides pressure on the hands, joints and muscles (of the students) so, when they go back in their classroom and they start writing, it’s a lot easier for them,” Sawhook said.

The room, formerly a regular classroom, focuses on four sensory therapies: movement, sound, touch and light.

The compression swing, for example, allows a student to relax and focus on only one stimulus — the motion of the swing — while calming their other senses, Sawhook said.

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Plans are in the works to dim the lights in the room, add picture/visuals instructions on activities for self-instruction and an interactive video area.

“This room is a blessing to me because it meets my students’ needs,” Sawhook said, “and that brings joy to me.”

“This room is instantly calming for the students,” said Amy Hepler, special education personal care assistant. “If they (the students) are upset, it’s nice to bring them to the sensory room and not disrupt the other students in the academic room.”

Joyce Hanz is a freelance writer.

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