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Hillingdon Manor School pupils, teachers, Occupational Therapists and Options Autism Ambassador Anna Kennedy were invited to Terminal 5 in Heathrow Airport to view and provide feedback on a pilot sensory room set up for a one-week period.
Six pupils from Hillingdon Manor School fully engaged with the sensory activities on offer and enjoyed the opportunity.
The protocol sensory room offered:
- A multisensory environment
- A variety of sensory equipment and tools
- Alternative seating options
- Ear defenders
- A whole selection of sensory experiences (sensory stations and fidget toys)
- It also took into account all the sensory differences and preferences that children with autism might experience
An individual’s sensory thresholds can fluctuate and is likely to be affected by their mood, environment, behaviour, anxiety, or the amount of sleep they have had. Pictured on the graph below, the blue line represents a profile at a consistently low arousal level; your calm-alert state. The red wavy line demonstrate how a person can fluctuate over or under this state (Levy, D, June 2018).
Individuals who are not in a calm-alert state may need support to decrease or increase sensory stimulus to bring them back into the calm-alert range. The most effective way of doing this is to offer activities that are “calming”. It is important to ensure that individuals leave the airport sensory room calm-alert and regulated, ready to board an aircraft to travel to their destination.
Hillingdon Manor School and Autism Ambassador Anna felt the sensory room would be comforting for travellers with children with disabilities to have a specifically designed room that is an interactive and safe environment away from the busy airport that includes a range of sensory stimuli for individuals to explore and interact without risk.
The feedback they suggested to help bring individuals back to the calm-alert state included:
- A distraction free zone within the room (low arousal, reduced visual clutter, no stimulation)
- Reduced background noises (buzzing lights, extractor fans, air conditioning, etc.)
- A window (if possible) to look out at the aircrafts and for natural lighting.
- Ensuring the sensory activity stations are spread out so that it reduces the chances of children bumping into each other.
- Locating the room away from areas where there is likely to be strong smells, noise and crowds (e.g. cooking smells, bars).
- Opportunities to increase proprioceptive input as this is the most calming (e.g. snug seats, bean bag seating, therapy balls, vibrating cushions, weighted lap blankets, neck scarfs, body sacks, squeezy toys, etc.)
- Opportunities for relaxing and calming fine motor activities, e.g. colouring, stickers, puzzles.
- The ability to complete relaxing chair exercises (if presented on a take-away visual this could also be completed on the aircraft). Ideas include hand pushes, hand pulls, head compressions, chair push ups and squeezing a stress ball.
- Offering a breathing exercise visual that can also be carried onto and completed on the aircraft.
- A back pack (carrying a back pack may be calming) that contains sensory based strategies and tools that can be used on the plane, helping to manage anxieties and improve the travel experience.
Hillingdon Manor will be continuing to support the development of the sensory room to help make the airport environment autism friendly.
Heathrow is committed to introducing facilities to meet a broad range of customer needs which include those with hidden disabilities of all ages.
Authors – Caroline McHugh, Lead Occupational Therapist, Shandae Simons, Occupational Therapist and Christine Walenn, Teacher at Hillingdon Manor School.