School psychologist Patricia Urgo talks with Andrew Smith-Hinson, 18, in a sensory room at the Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, N.J. The room, which utilizes soft furniture, special lights, optics and other features, is designed to help children with disabilities calm down. (Chris Pedota/The Record/TNS)

School psychologist Patricia Urgo talks with Andrew Smith-Hinson, 18, in a sensory room at the Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, N.J. The room, which utilizes soft furniture, special lights, optics and other features, is designed to help children with disabilities calm down. (Chris Pedota/The Record/TNS)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — In the dimly lit room, Tiara Santos lounged on the beanbag chair, stared at the bubble tubes and played with glow-in-the-dark toys, and then slowly, the demeanor of the girl with autism began to transform.

“Before we came in here, she was hard to control,” said Tiara’s teacher, Danielle Galambos, about the 12-year-old. “Here, she feels safe. She is quieter, more relaxed.”

Tiara was in a sensory room at the Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, N.J., which was designed to stimulate neglected physiology in students with disabilities. In Tiara’s case, it brought on a smile, as well as some calm.

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For students with disabilities, such rooms — also called multisensory rooms, tranquility rooms or relaxation rooms — provide a much-needed haven.

A growing number of sensory rooms are cropping up nationwide, including at the Phoenix Center, a private school in Nutley, N.J., for children with severe disabilities, which recently built a room with the help of a grant from Seton Hall University.

Generally, the individuals who use the rooms do not have to pay for sessions in the room unless they are in private therapy. Though the rooms can range from $15,000 to $1 million to create, depending on the equipment used, they can be funded through grants.

The concept of the room is based on a 1970s Dutch philosophy called Snoezelen, a blend of two Dutch words meaning to explore and relax. The Dutch researchers believed that atmosphere affects behavior. The rooms were initially used to provide special environments for young people with disabilities. These days, the rooms are used for a broad segment of individuals with special needs, including those with dementia, autism, brain injuries and those in palliative care. They are even used in some prisons.

Linda Messbauer, an occupational therapist from New York City who designed and opened the first sensory room in the nation in 1992, said the benefits of these rooms are backed up by good scientific trends and research.

“Kids are influenced by their environment, and they want to control as much of it as they can. The room helps kids learn to control their behavior through understanding and using their sensory diet,” Messbauer said. “You dim the lights, bringing about darkness, and it tells the child’s nervous system that it should start to produce melatonin and this starts the calming process.

What is happening is causing more areas of the brain to be functional and to be pulled into the process, causing a change, usually bringing about more focus and attention. These rooms help them learn how to control themselves, assuming the therapist knows how to use it properly.”

Andrew Smith-Hinson, 18, a student at the Felician School who has behavioral issues, said he looks forward to going to the sensory room, where it’s easier to calm down and open up about his problems with a therapist than in other areas of the school. “When I’m frustrated, it relaxes you,” he said. Pointing at the colorful fish being propelled onto a side wall by a film projector, he said, “I like seeing those fishes going in a circle. It helps take my mind off stuff.”

Messbauer estimates there are now 2,000 rooms across the nation that have been built by therapists.

Tom Marshal, a director at Southpaw Enterprises, a manufacturer based in Ohio that designs sensory rooms and other neurodevelopmental products, said he has worked on more than 400 sensory rooms in schools and residential facilities across the country. The rooms also are used for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, but his company has seen an uptick in use among children with disabilities in recent years because of the increase in autism diagnoses. He estimates that demand has grown by 15 percent over the past five years.

In the seven years since the room opened at the Felician School, therapists there have found that it has helped calm students who have disabilities, observed Principal Patricia Urgo: “It’s a quiet, calming place where the kids can choose what devices they want on,” she said, adding that students find it comforting to know they always have “a place to go” when they need to calm down.

The room can either have the effect of stimulating or relaxing a child, depending on what devices are used. “I used it for kids whose behavior was interfering with their academic progress,” said Urgo. For students who couldn’t calm themselves, the therapist dimmed the lights, put on soft music and allowed the child to jump on the soft furniture. Students who were lethargic and needed to be made more alert faced bright lights, loud music and devices that they could control in the room. Afterward, Urgo said she observed, they were able to focus better in class.

At the Phoenix Center, students come in for 30-minute sessions at a time with a therapist. So far, it has been shown to decrease the students’ aggressive behaviors, and it helps them self-regulate. Studies indicate that extended periods of time in a multisensory environment lead to an increase in self-regulation, which is the goal, said Julie Mower, principal of the Phoenix Center.

The music and lights in the rooms are often matched to the energy level of the student, said Gail Stocks, occupational therapist at the Phoenix Center. “Gradually, all the sensory experiences are modulated to get the student to an equilibrium. My goal is to get them regulated,” she said, adding that she often begins with dim lights and soft music and concludes the session with bright lights and louder music so that the child is better focused.

The teachers have reported that the 20 students who use the room once or twice a week are returning to class afterward with less aggressive behaviors, said Stocks.