Creating an effective Multi-Sensory Environment is an involved process. At the heart of any successful design is a collaborative partnership between the customer, their students or users and the equipment provider. Only then is it possible to harness the respective knowledge of all parties to best effect.
David Payne, SensoryPlus Product Manager explains; “Too often I meet prospective customers at assessments or our subsidised Awareness Days who feel other companies are too pre-prescribed in their approach, and most frustrating of all have failed to listen to their needs and expectations. Hopefully, at SensoryPlus I’ve instilled a much more collaborative approach. After all, the carers, teachers, parents and therapists are the real sensory experts – they don’t always realise it but they are!”
Suzanne Little, Multi-Sensory Practitioner at Meldreth Manor in Hertfordshire is just such a professional. And the school’s new sensory room, completed in June 2007, is a glowing example of the power of partnership and SensoryPlus’ commitment to understanding the customer’s need and respecting their expertise. Suzanne first became aware of SensoryPlus when invited to speak at an Awareness Day in 2006 but was quickly struck by its refreshing approach to customers.
“It was obvious from the catalogue that SensoryPlus’ philosophy is close to my own and discussions with David bore that out. As a sensory provider, it was clear they were interested in ‘why?’ and not just selling equipment. A contrast with my previous experience of sensory companies who had offered very little support.”
The room, now fully functioning and bearing fruit thanks to the excellence of Suzanne, her colleagues and the dedication of the wider care staff at Meldreth, was entirely funded by the Friends of Meldreth Manor. The final specification evolved through a series of meetings with Suzanne until it accurately reflected her goals and aspirations and negated the failings of the preceding environment.
“Since our original room was installed the importance and impact of a sensory approach to learning has really been grasped by the school as a whole. To that end the first room served its purpose and was loved by the children but it lacked flexibility. You simply couldn’t do what you wanted to do with it and the installation wasn’t entirely satisfactory either, it was great to be given the opportunity to use that experience to the school’s advantage.”
There are, of course, a host of multi-sensory companies available to consumers but SensoryPlus’ focus on customer care carried appeal to someone like Suzanne, beleaguered by previous experience. David Payne is quick to point out that SensoryPlus make mistakes too; “Mistakes or problems are a fact of life - of any business - and creating Multi-Sensory rooms is no different. SensoryPlus work hard to eliminate them as far as possible but hopefully shining through any potential problem is a determination to resolve it and a persistence in the pursuit of a satisfactory conclusion.”
Suzanne is happy to confirm that when problems arose this diligence was immediately evident; “…the pin spots for example, the care David took to ensure the end result was right showed tremendous professionalism. I knew when I contacted him about them – I was unhappy with the sideways glare from the bulbs – that he would act. And he did and the finished article is high quality.”
The finished environment at Meldreth features interactive tubes, fibre optic curtains, switch activated LED pin spots, a portable wind machine, voice effects unit and an array of other items and effects. Despite the plethora of resources, the room remains spacious and flexible, with the ability to divide and alter the size and flow of the room to Suzanne’s needs. Just the flexibility and space she craved. This ‘studio’ style of room is becoming increasingly popular.
“Suzanne’s aspirations are increasingly commonplace, the thinking behind sensory rooms continues to evolve via the growing body of best practice available and the sharing of experience through training organisations, charities and in small part the SensoryPlus awareness days.” David commented, adding; “Although SensoryPlus continue to supply traditional style rooms, more and more customers want open space in to which they can bring sensory tools and control the ambient, environmental light through colour controlled lighting systems.”
Thanks to the development of Meldreth’s new room, the October 2006 placement of Marja Sirkkola – a lecturer in Sensory approaches from Finland – at the school and Suzanne’s own place on our guest speaker panel her knowledge of the people involved in making the company tick is greater than most. “Everyone I’ve met at SensoryPlus I can connect to, they’re all warm and sincere. From Gill Clifford and Liz Gatt [the heartbeat of SensoryPlus Awareness Days] to Steve and Darren who did the installation they all really care about what they do. Steve and Darren were wonderful; full of ideas and you could see their dedication in everything they did. I just love the people in the company, they’re such an asset.”
Ok, enough now Suzanne! Of course not every customer gets to know the company as comprehensively as Suzanne has over the past year or so but her experience is certainly reflective of SensoryPlus’ customer care objectives.
David Payne concluded: “Working with Suzanne has been a treat. Both through her contribution to the Awareness Days and on the new room development at Meldreth. I think it is one of the many telling examples of the power and success partnership with customers can provide. Sensory rooms and equipment shouldn’t be about ‘them and us’, only through collaboration are the best results achieved. And that commitment to partnership will always remain at the heart of SensoryPlus’ philosophy.”
Meldreth Manor is a Scope school in Cambridgeshire for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD). The students are residential or attend day school and their ages range from 7 to 19 years of age. Meldreth Manor welcomes students with profound and complex needs and offers a creative approach to a multi-sensory curriculum, promoting all aspects of the child’s development: physical, social, emotional and intellectual.
Specialist teacher, Suzanne Little has worked at Meldreth Manor for over seventeen years and has developed assessment and planning in multi-sensory work for students with PMLD and multiple disabilities and visual impairment ( MDVI ). She explained the background to the multi-sensory resources available at the school: ‘the majority of our students have cortical visual impairment and need to have high quality and appropriate visual stimuli which can be adapted to suit the needs of the individual. The quality of resources we have here allows us to best meet the needs of each student.’
Originally built by SensoryPlus in 2007 the multi-sensory room at Meldreth Manor was the result of a collaborative process between the school, their students and the team from SensoryPlus. Following many meetings, the room’s final specification reflected the school’s goals and aspirations, featuring interactive bubble tubes, fibre optic curtains, switch activated LED pin spots, projectors with colour wheels and a small ultra violet light room with fluorescent materials and fibre optics to maximise the sensory opportunities the space offered.
‘We can come in here for group activities, such as, drama and we can create the setting we need in the room using the different resources,’ explained Suzanne. ‘We use the projectors and a variety of colour wheel effects which we project onto materials, curtain screens and/or white umbrellas. We can use the different resources in this room for a variety of activities and different environments to suit the needs of the group and for individual students to provide an optimal sensory experience. The resources in the room provide what we need to set up a special environment’.
Despite the wide choice of equipment, the studio-style room remains spacious and flexible, with the ability to divide and alter the size and flow of the room, controlling the ambient environmental light through colour controlled lighting. Suzanne expanded on how the room could be used: ‘some students may benefit from using a bubble tube with the switch control, others may be better looking at the projections on nets and looking at colours, so we vary what they do according to their needs. These are wonderful resources because if a student has sensory impairments then they need specialist equipment and our staff use multisensory approaches to enable students engage with communication of choices and activities.’
The new switch console from SensoryPlus controls colour and brightness by using large, colour co-ordinated buttons or by sound, from a music player or by voice through a connected microphone. The switch control has already proved invaluable to Suzanne. ‘It can be a very powerful resource because, in the first instance, it provides a motivation to use a switch, then awareness and attention is increased and there’s a realisation ‘ah yes, I’m actually doing that’ which can lead to an understanding of cause and effect in controlling the change of colour. This can then be generalised to using other switch access control which could empower students in communication of preferences and in choice making.’
‘Some students enjoy a special quiet time and love to come into this room to relax and focus their attention on just using one piece of equipment, such as; the fibre optics or colour wheel on the projector tent , ’ continued Suzanne. ‘Others just like to be quiet and look at the bubbles and listen to the very gentle sound and watch the colours change. It depends upon a person’s sensory preferences, which piece of equipment they use, but the room allows staff to provide a responsive environment to suit the needs of the individual and sensory programmes are designed to meet this need. The room can be used for calming times for those students who need quality time out for themselves; this is especially valuable for students on the autistic spectrum and for students who just want time to look,’
Finally Suzanne summed up the overall benefits of the multi-sensory room: ‘the point of these wonderful resources is that they can be used to improve the quality of life for someone with complex needs through fun and meaningful activities. The students can achieve success and pleasure and the more someone is happy, the more they can engage with the world around them.’