The American Association of Multi-Sensory Environments (AAMSE) approach to treating people with special needs, is an evolution of earlier ideas put forth by occupational therapists, neurophysiologists, educators, and the energy techniques used by complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) experts. This means that we have created an advanced blend of treatment activities with the power to rewire the brain. This resource summary for you, as the parent of a special needs child of any age, will make a complex treatment process clear and understandable. It will help in your journey toward becoming your child’s best advocate and expert.
MSEs have a wide variety of uses as a personally-preferred treatment environment that supports new learning in a variety of special needs populations with behaviors that stem from perceptual sensitivities and emotional self-regulation challenges. Home MSEs can be used to bring family members together because they support more mindful and empathy-based relationships with all who enter. As with other CIM approaches, the AAMSE approach to treatment promotes rewiring of deep emotional centers of the brain that influence every aspect of learning and behavior. AAMSE is a leader in treatment applications of the new scientific understanding that learning doesn’t just happen in the brain and is always influenced by what is happening in the body.
MSEs can support emotional self-regulation in all family members, as each individual journeys through personal and shared life transitions, develops new and adapts old routines, and adjusts to evolving family needs for relationship. MSEs are ideal for providing variable environmental conditions to support upward emotional shifts into joyful play, downward emotional shift into relaxation and possibly sleep, or a just-right state for self-motivated and optimally engaged learning. Individualized multi-sensory activities can be embedded in your home MSE as you help your child develop new skills and greater independence.
This resource guide will be divided into four sections. First, will be a brief overview of safety considerations that will be important to know and apply to every MSE activity decision. Second, will be a short list of the current experts in this area of occupational therapy practice. Third, will be a quick list of books that match the philosophy of MSE treatment. Fourth, will be a simple plan for creating your own home MSE. Multi-sensory activities are suggested that are easy to locate, relatively inexpensive to buy, and will allow you to better understand how to create your child’s and family’s own personally-preferred home environment.
Safety is always a first concern when selecting a multi-sensory activity that has batteries or uses electricity. Second, combining too many different types of stimulation at once increases the intensity and may be too much for your child. In general, strobe lights are not therapeutic for people with special needs and may cause seizures for those who are seizure-prone. Third, remember that everyone in your household has their own sensory environment preferences and it is beneficial for everyone to understand similarities and differences to keep the whole family happy and healthy. Extremely strong sensory preferences are called sensitivities while extremely weak sensory awareness creates a higher level of sensory need. It is helpful to understand these as sensory differences that are not uncommon in the general population and recognize the need to honor them for a healthy and happy family. Last, it is always important to consider allergies and to talk with your child’s medical team before using any sensory-based activities.
To identify experts in this area of therapeutic healing, you will want to begin with three websites. American Association of Multi-Sensory Environments brings together founding and current members of an association promoting the therapeutic use of MSEs in America. One founding member, Linda Messbauer, MA, OTR/L, has been designing multi-sensory environments for hospitals, long-term care communities, schools, and special needs gyms since 1992. Linda was the innovator of much of the MSE equipment currently in use by AAMSE Certified Professionals. AAMSE provides beginning and advanced training of Certified Professionals and promotes quality evidence-based practice research to prove the benefits of the AAMSE Approach. Linda has her own website that you will want to visit at www.lmessbauer.com. Linda can be contracted for trainings, multisensory environment designs, consultations, and lectures at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for Understanding the AAMSE Approach
Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, was written by Carla Hannaford in 1995 and was revised in 2005. As a neurophysiologist and educator, Hannaford is a leader in promoting the understanding that sensorimotor experiences influence memory throughout the lifespan and that learning occurs through body experience. Brain Gym is a program developed by Paul and Gail Dennison in 1989, with subsequent revisions, that applied this understanding to enhance learning potential in special needs children. Daniel J. Siegal has written many books currently used by psychologists and doctors, including CIM practitioners who are looking for alternatives to pharmaceuticals. Two of my favorites are The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, written in 1999, and The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, written in 2010. Siegel is the Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. Siegel has written books aimed at educating parents and others on ways to apply mindfulness principles to promote better learning, as well as more emotionally healthy children, adults, and families.
Creating Your Own Home MSE
Now, let’s make your search for supplies, equipment, and toys easier, as you learn how to create a family-friendly, home-version of an MSE for your child with special needs. I suggest you purchase inexpensive items at first. Purchases made through medical and specialty product marketers are often expensive and you will want to wait to select those after receiving formal AAMSE training. You will also benefit from time spent working with this simple list of categories as you become more and more aware of your child’s sensory reaction patterns.
To simplify your initial search, I am identifying items currently available on Amazon. I hope that by creating this easy-to-use search process, you will be well on your way to move onto a broader search using your own favorite search engine. In the few cases in which I am identifying a different website, you will see the link is provided. Key word searches will be recommended so that you can start learning how to select from categories that you believe will fit with your child’s sensory processing patterns. If your child has an occupational therapist, you will want to ask him or her for suggestions. As you broaden your search for collecting supplies, equipment, and toys for your home MSE, it might help to keep returning to these questions.
- How can I make this MSE safe for everyone in the household?
- How can I make sure this MSE can be modified so it is not over- or under-stimulating?
- How can I make this MSE variable enough to support joyful play, relaxing sleep, and optimally-engaged learning?
- How can I make this MSE a frustration- and boredom-free zone?
- How can I make this MSE age-appropriate and meaningful?
- How can I make this MSE most affordable, while I learn about my child’s responses to different forms of sensory input?
MSE Activities: The Relaxation Response
Deep Pressure, neutral warmth, and weight are natural approaches for promoting the relaxation response. These interventions work naturally through the proprioceptive system. This is the same sensory system that is activated and that tends to calm people through hugs, hand holding, shoulder rubs, deep pressure massages, and other expressions of human affection. Deep pressure has intuitively been used throughout history for good infant care, parent-child bonding, and to reduce a loved one’s stress. The relaxation response is an important aspect of occupational therapy treatment for children with autism, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and OCD, because it supports a child’s ability to meet just-right challenges. Sensory sensitivities and sensory-seeking behaviors are sometimes acquired later in life due to brain trauma, stroke, dementia, or PTSD. The relaxation response and just-right challenges are a key to treating these clients in an MSE.
Swaddle blankets have become popular for babies. Blanket wraps are also available for children and adults. Complete your search using the key words swaddle + blankets or blanket + wraps. A variety of weighted vests, blankets, and lap pads are also available for promoting the relaxation response. Be sure any weighted item is the correct weight for your child’s size, developmental level, and weight. When in doubt, ask your child’s therapist. Complete your search using the key words weight + vest + for + autism. Another calming option are the compression vests that can be found with the same key words of weight + vest + for + autism. If you are interested in learning how to make your own, a book titled Weighted Blankets, Vests, and Scarves is available and can be purchased at Target. Bean bag chairs and favorite pillows or cushions can also be used to facilitate the relaxation response through the proprioceptive and tactile systems. These are easy to find new or used in stores and on the internet.
Novelty lighting can be used to promote the relaxation response. The Color Changing Mini Nightlight provides a gentle source of relaxing novelty through slow, graduated changes in pastel colors. Complete your search using the key words novelty + lighting + lamps. The relaxation response can also be accomplished using lava lamps for the rhythmic comfort of gentle light and calm motion. Lava lamps are also suggested by some CIM practitioners for promoting a shared state of emotional self-regulation among family members. Complete your search using the key words lava + lamps. Appliance timers are beneficial for automatically turning lighting effects on and off at set times and can be found using the key words appliance + timer + with + remote.
White noise machines can be used to facilitate the relaxation response through auditory channels. They are available in models that are suggested for infants as well as people of all ages. Complete your search using the key words white + noise + machines + for + sleeping. Natural sounds have a calming influence for some people and can be easily provided through compact discs or sound machines. Complete your search using the key words nature + sounds + for + sleeping. Relaxing music is another option for promoting the relaxation response and can be individualized for every age group in the form of compact discs and sleep or meditation videos. Complete your search using the key words relaxing + music + for + sleeping or relaxing + music + for + stress + relief.
Selected scented oils and diffusers can be used to facilitate the relaxation response through the olfactory system. Complete your search using the key words aromatherapy + essential + oils. Warm baths can be relaxing, as can aromatherapy lotions. Complete your search using the key words aromatherapy + lotions + stress. Aromatherapy necklaces can be beneficial for calming children and adults while on the go or traveling. Complete your search using the key words aromatherapy + necklace.
Slow movement can be used to facilitate the relaxation response through the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The vestibular system is activated during movement and the proprioceptive system is activated when pushing off, moving against resistance, or feeling compression. It might help you to remember that emotional self-regulation has been promoted by mothers throughout history as they bounced their babies gently on their hips or rocked them soothingly in her arms. These same head movements can be sought using commercially made swings and bouncers. You will want to try out seating and movement options and consult with your child’s therapist for suggestions.
Children’s play tents and teepees promote the relaxation response through multiple sensory systems by providing a feeling of being safely cocooned inside a pleasant, safe, and interesting environment. Tents and teepees can be a calming space for children to go to for rest, sleep, and relaxation. Complete your search using the key words sleep + tents + for + children or indoor + tents + for + children. Soft colors and calming comfort inside the tent will be important and you will want to select textures that feel good against your child’s skin. Fidgets and interesting blow toys can provide an additional calming influence. Complete your search using the key words fidget or blow + toy + oral + motor.
For older children, adolescents, and adults, a variety of activities can be used to promote relaxation including: slow humming and deep breathing, meditation, centering prayer, therapeutic journaling, therapeutic coloring, progressive relaxation, and relaxing yoga. You can find many books on these subjects, as well as ways to build these practices into daily routines. Complete your search using key word combinations from the above listed words. If you want to learn more about why these strategies work and why they are beneficial for healthy interpersonal relationships, books can be purchased that provide the science or practical explanations for each. Complete your search using key words relaxation + response or emotional + self + regulation or mindfulness or affect + regulation.
Facilitating Reward Chemistry for Optimally-Engaged Learning
Reward chemistry can be facilitated by using many of the same multi-sensory activities as is recommended to facilitate the relaxation response. The key is to sustain a sense of novelty and wonder over time. Novelty is a natural attention-getter, can be used to promote a positive shift in mood, and enhances long-term memory of an event. One reason parties are often so memorable is due to their novelty.
Novelty can be added to traditional toys and activities by using interesting textures, vibration or weight variations. A variety of balls are available that use vibration, texture, or stimulating surfaces to add novelty. Complete your search for Spikey Sensory Balls using key words spikey + sensory + balls. Catching and handling these balls can facilitate more focused attention in children and adults with sensory differences. A variety of textured balls can be purchased for infants. Complete your search using key words tactile + balls + infants and use the same strategy for making age and size appropriate purchases. Vibration can add novelty to stuffed animals or pillows. Many of these are pressure activated to encourage touch and deep pressure input to hands. Hugging the stuffed animal or pillow against the body, further increases the amount of useful stimulation provided to both body and arms. Complete your search using key words vibrating + stuffed + animals or vibrating + pillows.
Novelty lighting is an excellent source of the variability required to attract and sustain attention for self-motivated learning. The PlayLearn Fiber Optic Lamp with a crystal base is one example of novelty lighting that provides stimulating and entertaining changes in color and vibrating fiber optics. Complete your search using key words novelty + lighting + lamps.
Joyful music can be a great mood lifter and keeping the music new and fresh, makes a positive difference. Complete your search using the key words children + music + cd or explore music options for your child’s specific age group. It has become a part of the culture for young people to have their favorite music on I-Pods, I-Pads, computers or musical toys. This may be a self-motivating option for your child with special needs.
After you develop a sense for which categories of sensory input positively shifts your child’s ability to self-regulate, other options from specialty websites will become fun to search for and easy to select. Just remember to learn from watching your child’s reactions and asking yourself the questions provided earlier in this article. I recommend you keep a journal to record each multi-sensory toy, activity, or input you try and the response your child demonstrates.
It will be the patterns over time that will teach you how to facilitate the positive potential for greater self-motivation and optimal learning. You will notice shifts in behavior as novelty wears off and your child becomes bored with an activity, so you will know it is time for a change.
Consider attending training events or lectures sponsored by the American Association of Multi-Sensory Environments and enjoy the networking potential as you connect with other parents who are exploring the benefits of using multi-sensory activities to promote growth and development in their child with special needs.
NOTE: This blog originally appeared in Exceptional Parent Magazine.