Autistic Children’s Responses in a Multi-Sensory Environment: The Effect of Having Control over Sensory Changes on Behaviour, Mood and Physiological Arousal.

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 2, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
K. L. Unwin, G. Powell and C. R. Jones, Wales Autism Research Centre, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom

Multi-Sensory Environments (MSEs; also called sensory or Snoezelen rooms) are common in special needs schools and contain equipment that change the sensory environment for educational or therapeutic benefit. They are widely used with autistic pupils yet there is little research in this area. Previous work within our lab has found that practitioners who use MSEs with autistic children believe them to be beneficial for improving behaviour. The practitioners also suggested that the child being in control was necessary for maximum benefit. To date, no study has empirically investigated the effect of being in control of sensory changes within the MSE on autistic children’s behaviours.


To assess whether having control of the sensory changes in an MSE, versus not having control, influences autistic children’s behaviours, mood and physiological arousal.


Forty-one autistic children (8 female) aged 4-12 years (M=8 years, SD=2.05 years), used the MSE twice. In the ‘sensory control’ condition they changed equipment themselves using an iPad or interactive board. In the ‘no sensory control’ condition, the equipment changed without their input. The order of conditions was counterbalanced. During each condition the child sequentially engaged with five pieces of MSE equipment including a bubble tube, touch sound and light panel, fibre optic lights, mirror ball, and immersive room lighting. Each piece of equipment was engaged with for three minutes in a randomised order. The sessions were video recorded and behaviours later coded. The outcome measures were selected based on findings from a previous study of practitioner experiences and included: social communication, repetitive motor behaviours (RMBs), sensory behaviours, anxiety, attention, enjoyment, and rapport. Physiological arousal was measured using heart rate variability.


Behavioural coding achieved good to excellent inter-rater reliability. Findings showed that when the child did not have control of their sensory environment they produced more RMBs and sensory behaviours, and paid less attention. However, there was no difference in social communicative behaviours or levels of enjoyment and anxiety. Rapport with the experimenter was also unaffected by condition. Analyses are ongoing, including the effect of condition on speech and heart rate variability.


These preliminary findings suggest that having control over sensory changes in the MSE reduces RMBs and sensory behaviours and leads to better levels of attention. This might be because control of the MSE enables an individual’s sensory needs to be met. Alternatively, better prediction of the sensory changes may create a less stressful environment. However, it is also notable that having control did not impact on other behaviours, including levels of enjoyment, anxiety or rapport with the experimenter. These finding have implications for how MSEs could be used for maximum benefit in schools.