Swings…Love ‘Em and Hate ‘Em! A Conflict of Philosophies…

Don’t get me wrong, I love swings personally. It took me a very long time to learn to use one. I couldn’t coordinate the “pump”…

But, I am not talking about me, I am talking about the use of swings in Multi-Sensory Environments/Snoezelen™ rooms, especially if the room is being used clinically for those with autism.

Swings may offer opportunities to sample anti-gravity positions, AND explore your own vestibular system, or they can produce “stress, anxiety or fear” at the very sight of them. This stress/fear maybe the result of being off the ground or it can be because we may not be in control of the swing or situation. The Anxiety/Fear of the individual may or may not be rational according to us. But, again it is about the individual you are treating not our logic or reason. Yes, even Jean Ayers herself said of the Autistic child; “The autistic child probably does not get the normal degree of pleasure when he rides something for the first few times, since his brain may not register unfamiliar body sensations as being pleasurable. He may have to experience those sensations many times before he enjoys them. Often when autistic children are introduced to a new or different activity in therapy, they object to that activity, but after a few sessions they smile and even laugh during it. If there is to be any progress at all, both the therapist and parents need to put up with the child’s resistance until he is ready to accept the therapeutic activity”. (*1) Doctor Ayers was talking about using a swing to facilitate certain responses to vestibular input in a clinical setting with out regard to the stress component as referenced above. However, the Multi-Sensory Environment is built especially to reduce stress and facilitate the control of the experience to the individual this is the Snoezelen philosophy and a concept used in the MSE to conduct treatment.

I guess as with anything newly evolving or not standardized, people are welcome to interpret it in their own way. I however, feel when the pleasure principal is working and a person is happy, empowered and especially not under stress, they will seek new challenges and/or accept being guided by a trusted companion. With that said, I still have doubts and trouble with swings, in a Multi-Sensory Environment and that is because of SPEED. One of the corner stones of the philosophy of Snoezelen/MSE is that the “user” is in control of their own exploration of the environment. To stay in concert with this philosophy the primary control of the speed is up to the individual using the swing and thus can be on any continuum; which in my opinion gives the user too much freedom to possibly create too much vestibular input. We know that this particular sensation is very powerful and can have negative effects for example, vomiting and too much arousal which can lead to not sleeping to mention a few. The trouble is a therapist or companion cannot control the speed, without abruptly interfering with the user to “turn off” the sensation and this is not the MSE/Snoezelen concept.

I do not believe swings made for fun or not, belong in a Multi-Sensory Environment, because the speed can not be pre-set or controlled. There is only one exception and that is the swing known as the “Leaf Chair” which when suspended from its frame cannot be made to twirl or go fast, it can only be used for gentle rocking and thus for relaxation. However, it still requires someone to be “off the ground”.

If I am looking to put more vestibular sensation into some ones’ system I would do the following:

1. After they have achieved a sense of happiness, contentment and explored the room to their satisfaction and feel empowered. (meaning: the environment has become predictable and safe)

2. Introduce more visual input through the use of the projector and its accessories – such as the panorama rotator for example.

Written by: Linda Messbauer, OTR/L – May, 2007
Reference:(*1) A. J. Ayres, PhD., “Sensory Integration and the Child”, WPS, Inc.
Snoezelen is a registered trademark of ROMPA, LTD, UK and licensed to Flaghouse, Inc. Other Multi-Sensory Environments by other vendors use other names, check
out MSE in a web search.