Autistic kids reach out and touch to learn

By Elise Franco


Teachers at The Rich Center for Autism are integrating an original tool into the program to help children become calm and focused.

Brendan Considine, classroom supervisor, said children on the autism spectrum usually are under- or over-stimulated, and a sensory room is a visual tool to help them focus their energy.

“If you can address those sensory issues and make it visual and textural for them, they’ll want to touch and play,” he said. “It has a calming effect, and they can focus better.”

Rachel Webster, a teacher at the Rich Center, said she was writing a research paper on sensory rooms when she decided to create one for her own classroom. Webster said she’s seen sensory rooms used in other schools for autistic children but never in a public-school setting.

“I thought it was a really good idea to put one in,” she said. “The research shows that if you use it five or 10 minutes before a sit-down activity, the kids usually behave better and are more focused.”

Webster said within the room is a sensory wall that is decked out with clear tubing, squishy balls, mirrors, Velcro objects and noise-makers.

The room’s remaining walls were painted black and strung with red twinkle lights. Webster said black was found to be a color children with autism find interesting.

The children also listen to music and can play on bean-bag chairs or a small trampoline, said Rachael Calhoun, a Rich Center teacher.

Webster and Calhoun are using the room for a group of preschool children. Calhoun said the kids spend 15 minutes in the room, twice per day.

“A lot of our kids are almost overstimulated, and it’s a calming mechanism,” Calhoun said, “Some are understimulated, and it helps in the opposite way for them.”

Webster said after coming up with the idea for the room, she approached the shop teacher at Austintown Fitch High School to help put the plan to paper. From there, the Fitch shop classes constructed the wall and installed it about a month ago.

She said putting the room together was inexpensive because most of the objects needed could be found at home or purchased at a discount store.

“The biggest costs were paint for the room, the plastic tubes and the plywood for the actual wall,” she said.

Considine said though the room would be fun for any preschooler, it serves a clear purpose for children on the autism spectrum.

“Any young child would love playing, but the kids with autism get more out of it because they have that need for more sensory input,” he said. “It’s going well so far, and we know they’re interested in it.”

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