Rooms with swings, disco balls help El Paso students with autism, sensory disorders
El Paso Times - 10/16/2018
Oct. 16--Adrianna Alatorre tries to help her son, Ryan, manage his autism at home.
Things like weighted blankets and dim lighting help Ryan calm down after too much stimulation. But Alatorre, a nurse, said there are times when Ryan needs another outlet.
"I can tell he's looking for some kind of input at home and just doesn't have it, doesn't have that outlet," Alatorre said about the types of activities that help her son stay calm and concentrate.
Alatorre is among dozens of parents of children with sensory disorders in the El Paso Independent School District who now have access to a spot to refocus and center themselves before getting to the point of shutting down from being overstimulated or overwhelmed.
Four campuses in EPISD -- Lincoln Middle and Newman, Herrera and Moreno elementary schools -- have sensory rooms, or spaces where students who have conditions ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, to autism can be prescribed time to "feed their sensory diet."
Both the Ysleta and Soccoro independent school districts also have sensory rooms at a number of campuses. Socorro has rooms in at least 20 campuses, and the Ysleta has several as well, officials said.
Big swings, colorful lights help EPISD students stay cool and collected
At Lincoln Middle School in West El Paso, the sensory room is in a small classroom that's been painted a soothing shade of light blue.
To an outsider, the room can look like a mini obstacle course. There is a large swing, blue padded floor mats and colorful lights.
In a mirrored corner, large colorful tubes full of bubbles make pleasantly lulling light popping noises. A small disco ball throws flecks of light onto the walls, which can be adjusted based on a child's needs.
The students who can access the room have sensory disorders and may have trouble processing things that can interfere with everyday life.
Students with sensory disorders are highly attuned to the sights, smells and textures around them and can get overwhelmed. The sensory room helps kids overcome those overwhelming feelings by offering them a set of sensation-based tools to stay calm and focused.
At Lincoln, about 10 students use the room as part of their daily schedule. While in the room, students can sit, lay, swing, make noise and move around. That allows them to release tension and return to the classroom more calm and focused.
For some, a few minutes in the sensory room means fewer meltdowns in the classroom.
The sensory rooms can offer as much relief and assurance for parents like Alatorre as they do for kids.
Alatorre said the room has helped Ryan, who attends Lincoln, avoid meltdowns, which are the point at which a child has too much sensory stimulation and can shut down or act out.
"I really wish every school would have something like that. It's beautiful and exemplary," Alatorre said. "They should take a page out of Lincoln's book."
Some EPISD parents 'were in tears'
Sensory rooms started popping up in EPISD about two years ago, officials said.
Haidi Appel, principal of Lincoln, said the room first started in a portable before a classroom was converted. She said the room will be included when Lincoln gets consolidated with two other schools under the 2016 voter-approved $667.8 million bond.
"The first time we showed this room to parents, some were in tears," Appel said.
Ivette Benore, an occupational therapist at Lincoln, said the sensory room helps students learn skills that help them manage emotions and body movement when they are in an overwhelming or overstimulating situation.
Our brains are full of neurotransmitters and chemicals that give off signals to regulate moods and functions, Benore said. If one chemical is off-balance, it can have ripple effects, she said.
"That's the hangry mood -- 'I'm aggressive, I punch or bite my hands so I can feel better.' That's a maladaptive behavior, and that's what we don't want to happen," Benore said. "So we provide those movements, that pressure, those visual components, before all this starts happening."
Up to two students at the same time can use the sensory room for 15 to 30 minutes, with a teacher present.
While in the room, students can choose from a number of stations that help feed and regulate the sensory feelings a child might be missing or craving. For example, some kids need repeated linear movement to calm down. In the sensory room, there's a large swing and a rocking chair to feed those sensations.
Some children need to feel light pressure to stay calm. There's a giant weighted cushion that Benore said some students will lay under, and there's also a machine that looks like a system of foam rollers that students can climb through to feel pressure. Benore likened it to a rolling pin.
A student must be prescribed time in the sensory room by an occupational therapist as part of the child's IEP, or individualized education program. Students receiving special education services receive an IEP each year, which lays out what the student needs to succeed in terms of curriculum, support and tools for learning.
"We could all benefit from this room, to say 'let me rest a little bit,'" Benore said. "It probably won't do much for us. But for our kiddos, 15 minutes in the swing with linear movement equals about three hours of doing well in the classroom."
Alatorre likened the benefits of the sensory room for Ryan to what a bubble bath at the end of a really long day can do for adults.
"It's just essential," Alatorre said. "They need time to decompress from the sensory input they receive from their environment."
Alatorre said she's worried about the next steps in Ryan's education. The sensory rooms are not currently available in any of EPISD's high schools. Officials said the district would have to find potential funding, like grants, to build more rooms. Right now the existing rooms run on special education funding.
"I think EPISD is doing the best they can with what they have. But with recent budget cuts or money allocated to building new schools, they've kind of put on the backburner some of the essential needs for these programs to function effectively," Alatorre said about the rooms.
Katonna Lagua, a Structured Learning Center special education teacher at Lincoln, retired from the Air Force after 24 years. She's been teaching at Lincoln for two years and said she's been able to see the impact of the sensory room on students who need it most.
Lagua explained that students with a sensory disorder sometimes need a certain sensory experience to get refocused, similarly to how individuals without sensory disorders sometimes need a caffeine boost to keep working.
"You know there are days we need that Diet Coke or cup of coffee, 'I need this and then I'll be OK, then I can work and talk to you," Lagua said.
The sensory room is not a reward or a punishment, Lagua said, but rather is prescribed time for a child to calm down.
"We make sure to let the children know that this is not an award," Lagua said. "This is where you come to feel safe, where we de-escalate something before it starts."
Sara Sanchez can be reached at 546-6147; firstname.lastname@example.org; @siempresarita on Twitter.
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