Multi-Sensory Environment – A Protocol for Individuals with Autism

Linda Messbauer

When building a dedicated MSE room it is important to control the outside and external influences or variables upon the individual. Variables such as noise levels, light intensities, privacy and even room temperature can be controlled. This is important because it sets the stage for comfort and allows the individual the opportunity to control the amount, intensity, degree, and frequency of sensation from multisensory equipment that they seek, and a practitioner has identified they require. Why? Because the more variables they can control the more they will experience/learn and benefit from an understanding of their internal dynamic process. There is no linear cause and effect relationship, no recipe for everyone. What there is however is an opportunity for a very individualized process to take place that motivates rewards and empowers a person to make positive changes for her/his self through some significant connections. These associations or relationships are dynamic and often an unconscious process that when self-identified can be useful in making healthful and positive behavioral change. Such as when this light appears, with these colors, and this music, I feel good, calm. (Therefore, when I am excited, I can use xxx color and xxx music to make me feel calm.)pleasure principle*2 through stimulation of the primary senses and serves as the primary reinforcement in a dedicated space with an awesome variety of equipment. Jackson and Hackenberg wrote in 1996 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior that “Modern Operant chambers have stimuli, including lights, sounds, music, figures, and drawings.” A Multi-Sensory Environment can offer the same stimuli including figures and drawings through the use of different projected images. If “figures” are defined as the human form, one can interpret this as the practitioner in the room. A well designed Multi-Sensory Environment can deliver the same reinforcements and can be controlled to change and shape behavior just as in as any Operant chamber. I believe this can be an ideal choice for treatment of those with Autism and other Developmental Disabilities.

Autism*3 is marked by: Qualitative impairments in Social Interaction, Qualitative impairments in communication and Restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities. Descriptive features include: Odd responses to sensory stimuli for example: Oversensitivity to sounds, Oversensitivity to being touched, Exaggerated reactions to lights or odors and High thresholds for pain. The Multi-Sensory Environment serves to combine behavioral approaches with control of the sensory stimulation for the individual with Autism. The environment as a whole will have the first impact on the individual and that the individual will have to adapt to; so the first emphasis must be on making the individual want to be there. To accomplish this, the room must be designed to have the equipment be turned on and off individually, such as with wall switches. This is in addition to on/off switches on the equipment itself. The room must be turned on in a slow consistent sequential order each time that individual enters the room. It should only have enough equipment turned on to be useful to the individual and not too much to be over-stimulating or under-stimulating. To accomplish this equipment must be linked to controls that will allow for changes in duration and frequency and be operable by both the practitioner and the individual; thus allowing for a closed and open loop for variability. (This variability is also necessary to generate neuronal plasticity*4) The open and closed loop link to the practitioner allows the practitioner to ultimately control the entire environment to allow for the contingencies the environment will eventually offer the individual. Setting up the environment to do this requires interfacing control devices that allow for changes in duration. This will allow the practitioner to shape behavior through the environment, not by personally putting demands on the individual. Ultimately it is the multi-sensory environment that will lead to self-discovery for the individual, much the way “play” teaches normal children. The individual with Autism that has Sensory Processing Disorders*5 can control the initial amount (intensity, frequency and duration) of sensory input allowing the practitioner to observe which sensory system is approached and which is avoided by the individual as they explore specific equipment. One can consider this an assessment period. It is also the period in which the individual learns to perceive the environment as comfortable, fun, and predictable. This includes the practitioner who will get assigned a positive association with the environment and experience. However, this will be contingent upon the practitioner following the initial rules of engagement.