Understanding the Beliefs and Experiences of Practitioners Who Have Worked in Multi-Sensory Environments with Children on the Autism Spectrum

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
K. L. Unwin, G. Powell and C. R. Jones, Wales Autism Research Centre, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Background: Multi-Sensory Environments (MSEs; also called sensory or Snoezelen rooms) are present in most special needs schools across the UK, and are widely used with individuals on the autism spectrum. MSEs typically contain a variety of equipment that changes the sensory environment for educational or therapeutic benefit. Despite the wide use of MSEs, their effect and overall efficacy has been under-researched, with previous investigations presenting mixed findings.

Objectives: To understand the possible effects and overall efficacy of using MSEs with children with ASD by asking school-based practitioners in the UK about their beliefs and experiences.

Methods: Data collection is ongoing, here we present data from forty-nine school-based practitioners (43 female, aged 24-60 years, M=38.6) who were predominantly (n=27) teachers or teaching assistants. Each practitioner completed a 28 item online survey about their use of MSEs with autistic children in schools. Items were based on our previous qualitative findings. The practitioners were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each statement on a five-point Likert scale, with percentage agreement calculated.

Results: Practitioners believed that there were multiple benefits to MSE use with autistic children including, reducing anxiety (96%), creating or increasing positive mood (90%), and decreasing challenging behaviours (90%). A large majority of practitioners (90%) believed that benefits were possible because the MSE was motivating and allowed the child to control their sensory environment. 86% of practitioners believed that the MSE could bring benefits not achievable through other school activities. However, 51% stated that MSE use did not always bring benefits. All practitioners agreed that the method of MSE use should be determined by the pupil's needs, suggesting that MSE use should not be used as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ activity.

Conclusions: Practitioners believed that MSEs were useful for autistic children, producing a range of positive outcomes. They believed these positive outcomes were possible because of the properties of MSEs (e.g. motivating), suggesting that MSEs may hold a unique function within schools. However, although positive outcomes were possible within the MSE, practitioners also reported that children’s experiences and their subsequent behaviours varied. The data suggest further investigation is needed to establish the circumstances in which MSE use brings benefit to autistic children. Consequently, a follow-up study directly observing the behaviour of autistic children in a purpose-built MSE at the Wales Autism Research Centre, Cardiff University is in progress.