Good times in the Snoezelen room
By Leah Myers
Almost everyone has a schedule they need to adhere to, whether for school, work, or otherwise. But during a busy week, who doesn’t want an hour to rock out to AC/DC or fall asleep in a large ball pit?
Visitors to Nanaimo’s only Snoezelen room have the opportunity to do just that. The term “Snoezelen” comes from two Dutch words: “snuffelen,” meaning to seek out or explore, and “doezelen,” which means to relax. Snoezelen rooms are both recreational and therapeutic, appealing primarily to individuals with developmental disabilities or those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Sue Logan of the Nanaimo Association for Community Living, which houses the local Snoezelen room, says activity in it is largely unstructured. For many ASD adults living in group homes, that’s its chief attraction.
“Group homes are very structured; from the time they get up, to the time they go to bed somebody is telling them what they’re eating, what they’re wearing, where they’re going,” Logan says. “This is probably the one hour in the entire day that it’s all about them. If they want to spend all hour in the ball-pit, so be it.”
And, like many new visitors, that’s exactly where Gabriel Stuart spent most of his first visit. Gabriel, 16, was diagnosed with Autism Apectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was five. He also has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), meaning his body processes sensory information differently. His mom, Alexandria Stuart, has seen first-hand how Snoezelen rooms have benefited him.
“He just seems calmer over all, more regulated, more focused, more verbal. If his body is regulated, he is able to spend more of his brain power on perhaps interacting with me –– which is not something he does all the time.” After a session in the Snoezelen room, she adds, he’s more apt to say a few words to express how he is feeling.
Because individuals with SPD process sensory input (visual, auditory, touch) differently, they can become anxious.“They lose track of where their body is in time and space,” explains Stuart. “The opportunity to touch things of all surfaces, and different types of things, will help them reach a more regulated state so they’re less anxious, and frankly just lead a better quality of life.”
Logan, who has worked as the attendant at Nanaimo’s Snoezelen room for almost two years, says it’s the best job she’s ever had. She particularly enjoys witnessing little growth spurts in clients — for example, when they leave their comfort zones behind during a visit to the room.“Stepping outside of the box is huge. Going from, say, the ball pit, to something different, can be a huge step. I think, ‘Wow they did it,’ and they did it without my help.”
She adds that she is “very protective over her guys” and that much of her job is about building trust with her clients. “When you’re dealing with autism and special needs, it takes a long time to build trust but it can take seconds to lose it. And it’s not cool when that happens. It’s very sad because rebuilding is not always easy.”
While initially intended for autism clients, Snoezelen rooms are now also used with individuals who have developmental disabilities, brain injury, and addictions. Logan says sessions can be quite individualized, too. “We don’t always play music but it depends on who’s in here. A lot of the guys who come in are 26 to 40 years old, so they like rock and roll. I find out what their favourite music is and I make CDs for them, and we play it loud.”
Stuart believes that ideally all parents of developmentally disabled children would have a Snoezelen room at home. While the cost is beyond the budget of many, she’s managed over the years to create her own version of a sense-stimulating environment in Gabriel’s bedroom, replete with a disco ball, lava lamp, and several quilts and blankets he likes to burrow underneath. Gabriel wrote the words “sensory room” on a piece of paper and taped it on his doorway.
“Christmas is a very exciting time for him,” says Stuart. “He usually breaks his wish lists into categories of things, and one of the categories of his Christmas list this year was ‘Sensory Room.’ He wrote down very specifically a few of the items he has in his sensory room at school.”
As the attendant at the NACL room, Logan has full control over its lights and sounds. Because the first few visits can be overwhelming, sessions are usually limited to a half hour to begin with, and then gradually lengthened to a full hour. Clients visit one-at-a-time so that, says Logan, the session can be all about them.
Nanimo’s Snoezelen room is available for booking six days a week, Monday through Saturday. The rate is $20 per hour, but subsidies are available for caregivers who may not be able to afford that price.
Back at home, Gabriel has started to see his bedroom as “his safe, sensory place,” says Stuart. “When he needs to go and just get away from whatever is happening in the house and chill out, he sees that room as a safe place to go. I love that we have the luxury of the space and some of the equipment to create that kind of environment for him. We’re very privileged to be able to do that.”
Stuart recognizes, however, that not everybody has the resources to create such an environment in their homes. That’s why she thinks having a Snoezelen room in Nanaimo, available to anyone in the community who can can benefit from one, not to mention some good AC/DC music, is a privilege too.