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Disney unveils innovative sensory room to empower students


Tucked inside Walt Disney Elementary School is a tranquil oasis. The 360-square-foot room is illuminated by a plastic cylinder filled with water and hundreds of bubbles that cause its color-changing lights to shimmer and flicker as they float to the top. There is a hint of lavender in the air and soothing melodies play softly in the background.


This sanctuary is Disney's new sensory room. The space is specially designed to meet the needs of Gates Chili students in the elementary 6:1:1 classrooms, which are based at Disney. Recognizing that these students' learning and sensory needs are unique and specific to those on the autism spectrum, Occupational Therapist Alecia Steeves, District Autism Specialist Adam Mattice and Principal Dr. Daniel Zdanowski launched the project last school year.


“Often times, school and school-related demands can be overwhelming to students with autism. These students learn in unique and specific ways,” said Mattice. “Students do not always process sensations and the world in the same way as people who are not on the spectrum. Students on the autism spectrum require additional sensory modification and adaptations to support their learning and sensory processing."


The sensory room will provide just that, helping students who may experience sensory processing challenges manage stimulation and stress. Additionally, it will be a safe, supportive space to build on the skills students are learning in the classroom and in occupational therapy.


“We want to help our students maintain regulation for longer periods of the day, and this is a resource we can proactively use to do that,” said Zdanowski. “They love their occupational therapy because they can run and jump on mats and pull themselves up on monkey bars. The sensory room is supposed to be an in-between. The space, along with classroom strategies and occupational therapy, can help students stay regulated throughout the day.”  


In addition to the bubble tube that creates a calming visual focal point, the room also includes a light projector and light table with sensory materials, crash mats, a rock wall with an attached swivel ladder, a platform swing, and a vibroacoustic chair that allows the user to feel the vibration of the music through the furniture.  


To utilize the equipment most effectively, the team has designed special sensory room routines that will be tailored to each individual student. The activities cover four areas of sensory processing: proprioceptive (movement), tactile (touch), vestibular (balance) and visual (sight).


“Those are the main sensory delays that our students experience, and we determined which equipment will help with each input,” said Steeves. “So, each routine is planned for a particular child, and then it can be altered based on data collected.”


Steeves will oversee the space and will train and coach the program aides that will eventually be the ones to run students through their sensory regiments.


The sensory room is nearly complete. It will start with a pilot group of six students. The goal is to open to the entire 6:1:1 program by the second half of the year. And eventually, the sensory will become a tool for the general education population as well.


“We know that younger students in particular have sensory needs, even if they don't have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or they function at a high academic level,” said Zdanowski. “And so, they might not get scheduled in the room every day, but we could use it as an intervention throughout their week to get them on the right track.”


The sensory room is funded through a grant from the New York State Office of Special Education.