Room for Improvement

A leading expert in Multi Sensory Environments, Linda Messbauer, of AAMSE, outlines the many benefits to be found in using MSE rooms

MSE is a dynamic pool of Intellectual Property developed over 35 years throughout the world. In some countries, it is referred to as “Snoezelen”, a term that is proprietary, hence the name multi-sensory environments. A multi-sensory environment is a dedicated room/space designed to block out noise, and control space and lighting. The MSE is a medium for communication that centers around the natural process of multi-sensory stimulation that is accessible, choice-drive/voluntary, empowering, meaningful, demand free, and highly pleasurable. It is based on the need (and/or situation) of the person.

This artificially created venue initiates changes in brain arousal(1) by affecting the relaxation process, reducing stress, anxiety and pain (both physical and emotional.). I aims to maximize a person’s potential to focus and then to act on this change through an adaptive response to the environment.

An adaptive response is defined as the individual initiating and reacting in a meaningful, productive way to situations, object, and people in their environment. An adaptive response is an ever changing process. By setting up this environment and controlling the sensory stimulation, the user experiences changes in focus and self-regulation. Multi-sensory environments help change behavior, functional ability, communication, quality of life and well-being. This MSE platform can be used in different application, including: recreation and leisure, education, and treatment. These environments contain highly novel equipment that can be controlled by the individual. It is this novel experience that starts the experiential process that leads to change and feelings of pleasure, safety, motivation and empowerment.

Most people visiting a room will comment: “I want one of these for my home”, and that is exactly why the room is unique. It is not part of our daily experiences, just like not being able to be on holiday every day (even if we wish it so). These rooms elicit smiles, and we learn and do our best when we are happy. But it is the initial combination of novelty, uniqueness, and happiness that brings about the first spontaneous responses we often see in people with disabilities such as autism. Many children with disabilities such as autism speak their first words in an MSE.

We know novelty wears off, and keeping the environment the same and passive will result in the brain saying “been there, done that”; in order for the brain to stay active and change itself (promote neuroplasticity[2]), we need change. So the MSE is equipped with enough variety to have subtle changes that interact with the senses without producing fear or overreaction, and offer the user continued motivation for change. Equipment will be different based on the intended population, disability group and goal.

In general, most rooms contain a tall bubble tube, a projector for various changes in moving visual images, music and a fiber-optic spray and options for comfortable seating. Each piece of equipment offers different sensations for the user; for example, the bubble tube offers the touch sensations of smoothness and vibration, the visual sensation of changing colors and eye tracking of the bubbles, the hearing sensations of the bubbling water and the hum of the motor. These rooms are devoted to all the senses we humans experience. Our world is 3D, so when we touch a bubble tube and run our hand and arm up and down it, we also stimulate the sense of movement and the sense of vestibular(3), as we move our head and neck to look up to the top of the bubbles. Sensory rooms, as they are often referred to, can come in many forms, but the most pupular is the White Room, with light colored walls so the equipment stands out and the room becomes an entire screen for projections.

MSE is currently used with children with traumatic brain injury, developmental disabilities, autism, and with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and in the mental health field, to mention a few.

(1): Brain arousal: in a continuum of low to high, this would be defined as: more Motorically active, more alert to Sensory stimuli of all sorts, more reactive Emotionally (MSE). Other states of arousal will influence one another; dampening or increasing the other state on top of the generalized arousal state, causing an emergence of one focus. Reference: Brain Arousal and Information Theory Neural and Genetic Mechanisms, Donal W. Pfaff, PhD, Rockefeller University.
(2): Neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.
(3): Vestibular sense: usually though of as maintaining balance and controlling sense of movement, but influences the autonomic nervous system, which influences the relaxation process, and directly or indirectly every other sensory system.

Linda Messbauer M.A., OTR/L
American Association of Multi Sensory Environments (AAMSE)