Snoezelen: A Special Environment for Sensory Challenges
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2009
By Lisa Tran
Envision walking into a room designed by the King or Queen of Imagination and endless possibility. The room is dimly lit and you feel safe and calm. Its white walls bring a sense of peace and tranquility that you have never felt before. Your eyes follow the lights as they dance across the walls to the ceiling where they meet the starry sky while celestial bodies orbit the room. You hear soft, ambient music playing in the background—a harmonious symphony to the ears. Clear glass tubes standing along the room are filled with colourful bubbles slowly rising. As you gently hold strands of fibre optic threads, they light up and change into an array of colours. There are plush, white beanbags on which you sit as all of the magic of the room is reflected in the mirrors around you.
You’re standing in a Snoezelen room (pronounced SNOOZ-eh-len), which comes from two Dutch words: “snuffelen” (to sniff or explore) and “doezelen” (to doze or to relax). The room is a special environment designed for those with profound special needs or sensory challenges. It has the extraordinary power to soothe the overly excited or stimulate the typically unengaged. Participants select and receive sensory input (tactile, visual, and auditory) through the different objects in the room, allowing them to claim their independence and experience the immediate consequences of their actions. The Snoezelen concept was developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s and is becoming increasingly common throughout the world, including many Canadian elementary and secondary schools.
It is hard to imagine how simple lights and sounds can greatly help a student with special needs without considering some of their specific challenges. A day in the life of a child with sensory sensitivities is full of obstacles—and that is before they even arrive at school. Someone who is hyper-sensitive to touch may refuse to get dressed because they experience pain from wearing clothes. On the other hand, hypo sensitivity may cause others to constantly touch objects because their sense of touch is not very responsive. Once at school, everyday sounds like the ringing of the school bell or the dragging of classroom chairs can be painful and alarming to those suffering from auditory sensitivities. The sense of smell is no different. Eating lunch among peers may prove a challenge to a student with a heightened sense of smell; just one sniff of a bologna sandwich may upset them.
How can an educator or caregiver tackle these challenges faced by their students? A Snoezelen room is a great accommodation because every object in it is designed to aid sensory challenges. For a student who is afraid of touch, they are inclined to touch everything in the room. Another student who is prone to seizures or angry outbursts suddenly feels relaxed. For the students who are very mellow, suddenly, they want to explore the room freely. Some of these students cannot speak nor articulate how to relieve their pain. In a Snoezelen room, however, the opposite effect is experienced. Students can communicate their excitement and pleasure. They wear precious smiles on their faces, or their eyes sparkle as they gaze upon the dazzling lights. It is always easier to express one’s happiness than their pain.
The magic of a Snoezelen room is in its contents allowing the student to act independently. Unlike a conventional classroom setting, there are no teachers telling them what to do or what to look at. Their eyes move around the room. They grasp the objects, changing and moving them. They explore the environment. The room calls out for interaction and movement. So many objects have different settings that make each experience unique. The speeds of the bubble tubes, for example, can be adjusted as fast or slow. The fibre optic light threads can be manipulated in multiple ways: braiding them, running fingers through them, or a teacher can help by using the lit ends to help students with visual tracking. A Snoezelen room is not treatment, therapy, or a place specifically for learning. It is simply a spa for the senses. Students experience choice in a Snoezelen room and see the outcomes of their decisions. The activities inside the room help them to recuperate and relax from their sensory sensitivities and other challenges.
There is, however, significant research supporting the seemingly magical effects of the Snoezelen room. One of the more interesting studies appears in the North American journal, Research in Developmental Disabilities. Researchers looked at whether changes in behavior of participants in a Snoezelen session carried over to a five-minute activity that followed it. The experiment involved participants who received occupational therapy (OT) in a Snoezelen room versus non-Snoezelen OT. Snoezelen OT refers to directed, tactile, and visual sensory input to effect arousal change. The participants used bean bag chairs, a stationary rocker, projector, light box, ceiling and floor chase lights, fibre optic spray, bubble tube, black lights, and new age music synchronized to the light box. Non-Snoezelen OT included: proprioceptive calming exercises, which aim to stimulate the proprioceptors in the body. A proprioceptor is a receptor found in tissues of the body for example, in muscles, tendons, and joints. They respond to stimuli produced within the body; vestibular exercises, that focus on the inner ear; and the use of rubber stamps and coloured pens to make picture communication boards.
The first participant was Ann who had moderate intellectual disability and autism. Her challenging behaviours were spitting, physical and verbal aggression. She was verbal, but often used grunts and gestures to escape from non-preferred tasks. Her task following an OT session was playing a colourful bingo game she enjoyed. The second participant was Kit who had profound intellectual disability, autism, and major depression. He experienced frequent crying incidents during which he sometimes became panicked and aggressive towards those around him. He was minimally verbal and only uttered one or two words. His task after an OT session was making and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The last participant was Jay who had profound intellectual disability and autism. His challenging behaviour was biting, both himself and others. He was generally non-verbal. He used few signs, two or three words relating to food, and one phrase, “don’t want” to indicate refusal. His task after an OT session was a game of catch. For Ann and Kit, researchers looked at the number of prompts they needed to continue their task. A prompt is defined as any gesture of vocalization that cued the participant to remain engaged in the task. For Jay, researchers examined the number of initiations he made on his own. Initiation refers to throwing the ball without being prompted.
The results of this experiment are instructive. Ann indicated a gradual decrease in the number of prompts she needed to remain engaged in her task, but there was no difference between her post-Snoezelen and post- non-Snoezelen OT sessions. Researchers are quick to attribute this result to the effects of learning; however, the results for Kit and Jay are clearer. For Kit, the number of prompts ranged from 20-25 per task following Snoezelen OT, but they increased to 30-40 when tasks followed non-Snoezelen OT. Jay fared similarly in his game of catch. After a Snoezelen session he had as many as 45 and 80 initiations in his task, but when his ball playing was preceded by non-Snoezelen OT, the number of initiations was shockingly less than ten.
For both Kit and Jay, researchers found a carryover effect of Snoezelen upon post-session task engagement. Researchers also concluded that both Kit and Jay may have experienced more success than Ann because they each had own ways of regulating their sensory difficulties. To help ease his adverse response to light touch, Kit liked to manipulate coins or bottle caps in his hand. Similarly, Jay engaged in spinning and twirling to give him an intense vestibular input that helped calmed him. Ann on the hand, hit, pushed, or jumped aggressively to deal with her hypersensitivity to touch. She did not help her senses, she merely got upset when she experienced pain.
Kit and Jay are both adults, but the results of their Snoezelen experiences should not negate the potential of Snoezelen rooms for younger individuals in schools. Given that adults who have undergone numerous treatments and even institutionalization respond so effectively to Snoezelen rooms, we should be optimistic that equally or even greater potential may be possible for students who are younger and have received less treatment. It is important that schools try to create an environment where students are given the chance to experience life in a way that is meaningful to them. Ideally, schools should provide equal opportunity to learn and grow to their fullest potential for all students and a Snoezelen room will do that for those struggling with disabilities and other challenges. It is a little mystifying trying to understand how the Snoezelen concept works so well. That may be because an outsider will view a Snoezelen room as something out of a dream, but for those who use it, they see it as very real and necessary – a gift from the King or Queen of Imagination for them to enjoy in any way they wish.
Special thanks to Alana Grossman and Joanne Parum of the Beverly School in Toronto for allowing me to visit their snoezelen room and pool.