Saint Louis University Helps Students Thrive with Sensory Room
ST. LOUIS — The dimly lit sensory room smells like lavender. A swing hangs from the ceiling for balance and coordination. A bean bag is in a corner near a weighted blanket. A bubble tube and sand are on a shelf. In cubby holes are coloring books, fidgets, mints and gum. There are also noise-cancellation headphones and laminated handouts with QR codes that link students to calming sounds.
When the outside world becomes too much, Saint Louis University’s sensory room is a space students can visit to take a moment to reset.
The human brain is designed to regulate how we react to sensory inputs — everything we hear, see, smell, taste and touch. This link between the brain and our behavior is called “sensory integration.” For most people, this is an unconscious part of the daily experience. But for an individual with a developmental disorder, such as autism or a sensory processing disorder, the way the brain processes these experiences can be a source of distress and discomfort.
Incorporating sensory breaks into a person’s day provides many benefits. Studies have shown that even a short period in a sensory room can leave people feeling more focused and relaxed, less stressed, and better able to communicate with others. They can solve problems more effectively, be better equipped to accomplish tasks and be more sociable overall. Creating a sensory space can be very beneficial at home, school, or work.
SLU’s sensory room, located in the Busch Student Center, is a safe space designed to provide room for individuals with a sensory processing disorder to decompress and productively cope with sensory issues.
The idea was born when a faculty member saw a need.
Sarah Zimmerman, OTD, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at SLU, noticed that sensory integration tended to be geared toward young children. She believed the therapy could be beneficial for young adults, too.
“Why would these things also not work for teens and young adults to help them maintain a calm, alert state?” Zimmerman wondered. “There’s a void that needs to be filled.”
Zimmerman collaborated with Kendra Johnston, director of SLU’s Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources (CADR), and occupational therapy graduate students, to design a space that could provide sensory support to students.
Jillian Vlasak, a first-year occupational therapy grad student, was among the students instrumental in designing the space.
“There's not a lot of research on its effectiveness with adults. But I think we're realizing that we need this just as much as the developing child does,” Vlasak said. “It's all like the brain plasticity, and using a room like this will prevent those emotional meltdowns from being overstimulated in a college atmosphere.”
Though designed for those with sensory processing disorders, the sensory room is open to all students who may need a quiet place to go and regroup, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Students can also meet with an occupational therapist to obtain a sensory profile to identify their sensory preferences and develop regulation strategies.
Johnston notes that there is an increasing need to support students with disabilities.
“We're seeing a big increase in students with autism spectrum disorder, for example, who are coming to campus and connecting with our office,” Johnston said. “In some cases, these are folks who also have sensory concerns. This is one of several resources on campus that can help to reduce some feelings of anxiety or depression, which can go along with sensory processing disorder that our students may be feeling.”
The sensory room, located in Busch Student Center, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday during the CADR’s regular business hours. Visit CADR’s webpage for details on scheduling an appointment.
Johnston hopes to add hours and expand to other locations on SLU’s campus.
“We want to see students thrive,” Johnston said. “And then, we want to give them the tools they need to go out in the world and succeed on their own.”