Special school’s sensory room offers solace for the senses

Cally Burt, 13, explores the sensory room at Emily Follensbee School. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

A common question from parents of students in Joi Weir’s junior high class is whether their child is making friends.

The answer is usually no.

The special-education teacher knows that’s not what parents want to hear, but in a school designed to meet the needs of society’s most medically fragile children, it is far more common for students to form bonds with nurses, educational assistants, therapists and teachers, rather than their peers.

By Annalise Klingbeil, Calgary Herald February 18, 2016, updated March 20, 2016

Which makes what Weir has witnessed this school year between a few teenage girls even more special. The teens like to leave their classroom with help from an aide and relax across the hall in a dark playroom equipped with special lights, sounds and a cushioned floor and walls. Inside the quiet room, the girls will lie near each other, crawl across one another, roll around and just share each other’s company.

“They like to hang out like junior high girls do,” Weir said. “It’s so great that they’re forming friendships. It might not be friendships that we traditionally think of, but they’re forming bonds there.”

Weir is a teacher at Emily Follensbee School, where traditional assumptions about school are off the table. Many students can’t walk or talk. Instead of gangs of girls gossiping in corridors between classes, the hallways are lined with elaborate wheelchairs. Aides push students on specially designed trikes and bikes through the school’s sunny atrium to a swimming pool inside the building.

Junior high classrooms contain changing tables and bright charts depicting the weather and days of the week.

Class sizes average eight students and instead of math, science or social studies, students learn “maintenance of physical status” and daily living skills. The Calgary Board of Education school serves 88 students — ranging in age from toddlers to teens — with multiple, complex learning needs, including cognitive and physical disabilities.

At the southwest school overlooking the Elbow River, classes regularly venture into the surrounding sprawling parkland to absorb nature.

But inside, a favourite hideaway for students and staff is the small, dark, windowless sensory room. The space includes an area with specialized light and sound equipment, and an adjoining soft playroom where Weir has delighted in watching friendships form.

The room inspires students to interact with their environment and helps their personalities emerge. First developed in the 1970s in the Netherlands, a sensory room offers both stimulation and relaxation to children — and adults — with disabilities by using lighting effects, tactile surfaces and sounds to excite the senses.

Teachers and aides learn quickly what part of the room each student likes best by observing facial expressions and body language. Some kids are drawn to the fibre-optic lights, others want to touch the bubble tube. Some students just want to hang out and snuggle, while others love the carpet that plays music.

Nick van Roijen, an 11-year-old who is blind and unable to walk or speak, is hoisted from a sling by two staff members and placed on a platform that gently shakes. As his body rocks back and forth, a smile spreads across the boy’s face.

Cally explores the sensory room with Kaitlin Schellenberg, an educational assistant. The room includes strands of fibre optic lights that children can explore to help them communicate and understand their surroundings. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

Cally explores the sensory room with Kaitlin Schellenberg, an educational assistant. The room includes strands of fibre optic lights that children can explore to help them communicate and understand their surroundings. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

Nearby, 13-year-old Cally Burt makes a beeline for a mirror on the wall, where she lingers, admiring her reflection. Eventually, she turns her interest to a tall bubble tube that changes colours when she slaps buttons on a large portable box. When an educational assistant wraps a handful of colourful fibre-optic lights around the girl’s arms, her contagious giggles break the room’s silence.

It’s a typical afternoon in the sensory room.

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