Turning Down the Burner without Turning off the Stove

Linda Messbauer


During many of my workshops, practitioners who use Multi-sensory environments with individuals with Developmental Disabilities, comment that after six to nine months their children and adults lose interest and fall asleep. I would like to address this issue because it is of growing concern to me, that individuals using these rooms get the most out of them.

In many of these cases the MSE is a passive room*(see definitions of types of rooms) the initial goal of the room was to provide “relaxation” and “exploration through sensory stimulation”. The initial experience of the room no matter what type is usually very novel. But, novelty does wear off. Also, when anything in our environment is held constant weadapt to it. It becomes predictable and as a result we perceive it as safe. An example would be going to a hotel room for a couple of nights, and hearing all the noises and new smells the first night and depending on your unique makeup adapting to it by the second or third night. You have gotten use to it, it is predictable, and you become unaware of it. Said another way, it becomes background, you are safe and you sleep like a baby. Both predictability and constancy are hallmarks of using an MSE to promote anti-stress and the relaxation process. They lower general arousal. They also can create monotony and boredom with the end result being sleeping. I want to add here that if “sleeping” is the goal; then yes, MSE will put folks to sleep. In the passive mode the environment will induce sleep, especially after sufficient time has passed and any opportunity for further exploration is gone. Does this mean you need to buy new equipment, redecorate? No, it means you need to use the equipment and room to produce subtle changes in arousal to maintain an individual’s level of wakefulness.

If the goal or outcome is lowering someone’s level of arousal, helping produce the relaxation response, (process or state) then you will need to help the individual become aware of that state, process and how it feels to them. If they go into a state of sleep they will not be able to become aware or learn from the process. You want to take the temporary pleasurable feeling and help them identify, learn and repeat it. In other words you want the individual to practice relaxation using their senses to learn self-regulation. You want them to become aware cognitively as to how they are feeling emotionally. The initial goal of the room is this predictability and constancy to facilitate the relaxation response. The time it takes will depend on the individual’s presenting level of general arousal and the frequency of visits to the room. But, once this response is reached over time a change must happen to avoid sleeping. So, how do we avoid sleeping in the MSE?

1. Don’t turn the whole room on and leave it going unchanged forever.

We as humans monitor change, both consciously and unconsciously and simply put the right amount of change is the answer. I’ll come back to determining the “right amount” in a later article.

The MSE equipment is designed to have change built in to it. The number of variables of each piece of equipment is predetermined by its design and function. The first variable is that equipment can be turned off and on. This may seem obvious, but, many MSE rooms have every piece of equipment turned on before someone comes in and it stays on even as they leave. The first control a practitioner will have is sequencing, i.e. an order of turning on specificequipment and not everything needs to be turned on. The practitioner also has control of dimming the lights in the
room and how much darkness will control general arousal and state of wakefulness. So controlling the equipment and the entire room can prevent sleeping.

2. Control single pieces of equipment once the individual appears no longer interested in exploring it.

If your room has equipment with controls for the individual, change the control features to increase or decrease the motivation to explore it. There are possible changes on how the equipment can function on some equipment. For example, if you have an interactive bubble tube, change the controller on the bottom. For example turn the bubbles off until the switch is pressed, leaving just the lights changing color. The person has to engage the switch to make the bubbles go on. It changes intensity- the sound and vibration component become more distinct and the water bubble sound is gone. Once the individual presses the switch the column sends a large burst of bubbles to the top and the sound is different. Some equipment have controls for speed, adjust this also. The changes don’t always have to be large hit-you-in-the-face type, subtle change is better. We want to wake them up not scrap them off the ceiling. In general don’t startle someone. Get to know your equipment what it can and cannot do.

3. Control the type and volume of music.

Change the tempo of your music to change general arousal level and increase it. Adjusting volume will also change states of wakefulness. But don’t blast it, subtle is best; go slowly. Use the life experience of the person to select appropriate music. The more meaningful the music is the more it will prevent sleeping.

4. Optimize the use of the solar projector.

Use the solar projector to vary the visual effects. First, if you have an effects wheel that has been rotating on the wall for eons, change it. If your projector is mounted from the ceiling or on the wall and you cannot take it down to manually use it. Change where the image is projected; put it on the floor, ceiling or another wall.