The Use of Multi-Sensory Environments (MSE) for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Qualitative Investigation

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
K. L. Unwin, G. Powell and C. R. Jones, Wales Autism Research Centre, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Background: Multi-Sensory Environments (MSEs; also known as sensory or Snoezelen rooms) are widely used with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly in educational settings. MSEs are purpose built rooms equipped with a variety of sensory materials that can be controlled for therapeutic benefit. However, despite the popularity of MSEs, there is limited research and understanding of how these rooms function, their benefits, and their overall efficacy. In addition, most research has looked at users with a range of special educational needs and not focussed on the specific experiences of those with ASD.

Objectives: Using qualitative interviewing, we aimed to establish the practitioner perspective on the use of MSEs for children with ASD. We were particularly interested in: (i) how MSEs were used and (ii) the perceived benefits of MSEs.

Methods: Twelve practitioners (11 female, aged 24-62 years) across 6 special needs schools in the UK participated. The practitioners were either teachers or teaching assistants and had been working with children with ASD in MSE for between 3 and 20 years. Each participant was interviewed using a semi-structured interview, with the data analysed using qualitative thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Results: Five themes emerged from the interviews: (1) “Child is central”, the belief that the child’s needs, capabilities and preferences defined how and when the MSE should be used, as well as the potential benefits; (2) “Practitioner engagement”, the belief that an active practitioner was necessary for the child to benefit, and that because of this more research and practitioner training was needed; (3) “Positive properties of MSE”, the belief that MSEs had distinct properties, such as flexibility of use and motivational capacity, that contributed to their efficacy. (4) “Benefits for the child”, the MSEs were believed to benefit behaviour, cognition and mood, as well as learning; (5) “Challenges for MSE use”, MSEs were believed to have some drawbacks, including the potential to elicit negative behaviours.

Conclusions: The way in which MSEs were used depended on the needs of the child, and optimal use required an active and trained practitioner. Perceived benefits from MSE use included improvements in behaviour, cognitive ability and mood, with opportunities for teaching and learning within the MSE also possible. Perceived benefits could sometimes have ‘carry over’ effect to outside of the MSE. These findings are currently being used to inform an empirical study on MSEs and ASD within a purpose-built MSE at the Wales Autism Research Centre (WARC), Cardiff University.