Improving learning and wellbeing for autistic children

The first evidence-based guide to creating a sensory room to support the well-being and learning of autistic people has been launched.

The Wales Autism Research Centre at Cardiff University collaborated with teachers and psychologists who work with autistic children, autistic people and parents to develop the new sensory room guide.

The resource aims to ground the development of a sensory room in research - something that hasn’t existed to date - to help practitioners and parents maximise the benefit of sensory spaces for autistic individuals.

Dr Catherine Jones, Director, Wales Autism Research Centre at Cardiff University who led the development of the guide, said: "A sensory room is a dedicated space that contains sensory equipment to transform the environment and provide sensory stimulation in lots of different ways. It is an adaptive space, changing the equipment types and stimulation amounts to meet the user’s needs."

Sensory rooms are widely used within schools that support pupils with additional needs, as well as in a range of community and care settings for both adults and children, but there were no evidence-based guidelines for their creation. The team at the Wales Autism Research Centre aimed to develop a guide, based on their own research, to help educators ensure they can use sensory rooms to their full potential, to maximise their benefits for learning and wellbeing.

The sensory room guide draws on the Wales Autism Research Centre’s research into the use of key pieces of multi-sensory equipment - such as bubble tubes, mirror balls, fibre optics and tactile walls. It also explores the potential benefits of using a sensory room with autistic pupils, including positive changes in engagement and attention, mood and anxiety, and relationship building.

Dr Jones added: "We believe the focus of sensory rooms should be to support opportunities for enhancing the development, learning and wellbeing of autistic people - and we support a neurodiversity-affirmative approach to education. Sensory rooms are an ideal space to support neurodivergent pupils without many of the environmental conditions of everyday life that can be a barrier to development, learning and wellbeing."

The guide was launched on April 19 2023 and can be accessed here

One of the first places to use the new guide is the Cathays Community Centre, a facility that supports the community in Cathays and Cardiff central.

Bridie Smith, Sensory Room Manager at Cathays Youth and Community Projects, said: "The guide will equip us with the necessary tools and knowledge to prepare for our sensory facility’s opening and ongoing development."

Dr Jones added: "We are so pleased to not only provide the first research-led guide to creating sensory rooms, which can be used internationally, but also to have involved autistic children, parents and educational practitioners in the process.

"This project has shown how research can be translated and directly applied to real-life applications, improving the learning and well-being of autistic children."