QUESTION:

I am an OT working in a middle school. Our team includes behavior coaches; however, we have differing views on the use of sensory rooms. They believe in teaching functional communication through free range of a sensory room. My approach is more controlled.

We are working with an autistic seventh grader. He is nonverbal, trying to learn picture cards, and exhibits aggressive behavior. I tried brushing last year, but he kicked and ran away. His behavior coach send this kiddo to the sensory room every 45 minutes to 1 hour for greater than 10 minutes each time to swing or just free play (hoppy balls, throwing ball pit balls, swinging in a net swing or platform swing).

Here are a few problems I’ve seen: Very few of the other 10 kids can go because he is monopolizing the room. I’m not sure swinging for 15 to 25 minutes every 45 minutes is helping his regulation. I feel it could be too much. Do you know of any evidence-based articles discussing lasting effects of vestibular input through swings?

Any insights you can give on this scenario is greatly appreciated. I want to not provide for all of our students, not just this one. I’m willing to try anything but at the same time provide only as much input as needed. Thank you for your help!

Answer:

For a long time, we’ve been told that the effects of vestibular input can last up to 8 hours. However, I cannot find evidence for that statement. What we do know is that vestibular input is powerful and whether it has an alerting or calming effect is all in how it’s being accessed. Fast, multi-directional motion is alerting, which causes a release of dopamine and epinephrine. Both of these neurotransmitters have relatively short-lived effects. Slow, rhythmic motion is calming and causes a release in serotonin and GABA, and these neurotransmitters have a longer impact on the brain (up to 2 hours).

Sensory Rooms

I have a greater concern for the free-for-all approach currently being used. Children with sensory processing disorders are unable to self-regulate, thus the diagnosis. Turning them loose with sensory equipment is almost never helpful and is usually causing more chaos than not. Structure is critical for these kids. They need to be taught to identify their current sensory state and make activity choices accordingly. Programs such as BrainWorks, the Alert Program, or Zones of Regulation work best.

I’m also a big advocate of data tracking. If the free-for-all use of the sensory room is helpful, it should be apparent in the data. I recommend choosing one target behavior that is a good indicator of regulation, such as communication or aggression. Start tracking data on this behavior before going into the sensory room and then again after leaving the room. Then, create a sensory program based on his sensory assessment (a good sensory checklist like the one on our website may be enough). Finally, continue data tracking once appropriate teaching tools and structure are in place.

Sensory Breaks

Concerning the frequency of sensory breaks, here are basic guidelines based on my own research on the effect of neurotransmitters:

  • 10 minutes every hour for kids functioning at the kindergarten to first grade
  • 10 minutes every 1.5 hours for kids functioning at the second-third-fourth grade levels
  • 10 minutes every 2 hours for kids functioning at the fifth-grade level through adulthood

For kids functioning below the kindergarten level, I really don’t recommend sensory breaks. Instead, I recommend a steady flow of sensory input that is frequently available in good pre-K classrooms: hands-on learning activities, frequent movement between centers, gross motor activities, and so on.

Training

We have a free 1- hour webinar titled An Introduction to the BrainWorks Approach to Effective Sensory Diets that goes over the basics of creating a good sensory program.

Even though it’s free, you still have to add it to your cart and go through the checkout process, so it will be available in your account. Just let me know if I can be of further assistance.

Best wishes!
Gwen