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Multisensory Snoezelen room helps students who have disabilities

The UCP Children’s Center in Commack unveiled a special room for it's students on On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Called a Snoezelen room, its uses objects, like bubble tubes and fiber optic lights soothe and stimulate students’ senses to help them learn movement and speech. (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams)

With both hands, a young girl clasped a glass tube as bubbles within it rose to the top. Her eyes tracked them in the dark room.

A boy lay on a foam mattress and kicked his feet when fiber-optic strands beside him glowed in the dark.

French music played behind a projection of the Eiffel Tower. Then came the sound of crashing waves and a picture of the ocean.

Soothing sounds, bright lights and varying textures are the focus of the Snoezelen room at The Children’s Center at UCP of Long Island in Commack.

The school on Tuesday opened the room that uses the objects inside to relax students and stimulate their senses — a crucial way to teach the developmentally disabled. The training originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

“It does heighten the senses for our students. Students that are nonverbal are able to communicate in this environment via simple gestures and facial expressions,” said Sherri Glazer, the center’s principal and director of educational services.

The school over the years has maintained sensory rooms that were less sophisticated. The new $22,000 room, funded by a private grant, represents the center’s largest investment in the technology.

The Children’s Center instructs 78 students from prekindergarten through high school. About three-fourths of those enrolled are nonverbal and nonambulatory, and some are vision-impaired. Others have suffered traumatic brain injury, are prone to significant seizures or are mildly autistic.

After the young boy kicked and moved his hand toward the bright fiber-optic strands, Karen Messina, a physical therapist at the school, explained that “he’s learning how to move his body toward his environment.”

“You can tell he was enjoying himself,” said Messina, who has taught at the school since 1988. “When you enjoy that, you stimulate the brain in other ways.”

Karen Geller-Hittleman, an assistant executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County, said for many with developmental disabilities, “the body and brain do not process sensory information appropriately, and at times the environment can become overwhelming.”

The multisensory room, she said, “offers exposure to visual, auditory and touch sensations in a safe and stable environment.”

The term “Snoezelen” — pronounced snoo-zuh-lin — merges the Dutch verb “snuffelen,” which means to seek and explore, with “doezelen,” to relax. Such rooms are in dozens of countries and across the United States, and some are on Long Island.

The Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County, in Roosevelt, opened a multisensory room for its Adult Day Treatment Program in 2014. Schools in the Middle Country school district maintain variations of the room, too.

At Eugene Auer Memorial School in Lake Grove, 16 autistic students use a Snoezelen room with lava lamps, black lights and aerial projections of stars. Teachers in the district raised $25,000 for the room, which opened in 2014.

“It’s just a very calming atmosphere — kind of like going into a spa-type place,” said Ken Gutmann, the elementary school’s principal. “It looks strange at first. It really works.”

Instructors use the rooms to calm the nerves of students who feel stressed over occupational or physical therapy assignments.

“If you were working with the students on upper body strength and kneeling positions, it’s nice to have the sensory part as a distraction for the students so they can work on those very difficult skills that, in another environment, might not be so motivating,” Glazer said.

Some students in Middle Country use a more active sensory room with a large swing, trampoline, ramps and monkey bars that “does the opposite: It gets the activity out of them,” Gutmann said.

Geller-Hittleman said the cerebral palsy organization is applying for grants to secure funding for a state-of-the-art Snoezelen room for its younger members.

“If we can break through some of those barriers, and desensitize individuals to sight, sound and touch, then the integration into the community can be on a greater scale,” Geller-Hittleman said.


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