Then, a zillion people post up a range of random items - lights, swings, tents, vibrating mats, and the inevitable bubble tube - with links from eBay, Amazon, B&M Homestore, Tiger, etc.
Don't get me wrong: I freaking LOVE a bubble tube. Always have. And I was particularly grateful for one installed in my local children's ward when one of my sons went in to have his tonsils and adenoids removed last year. The tube was on all the time, day and night, and for my boy - on the pathway towards a diagnosis of autism - who couldn't sleep due to anxiety and pain, and who wouldn't take any medicine because he was terrified of anything going in his mouth, the bubble tube saved our night: I sat on the floor in front of it for hours with him on my lap, we were almost unified in a state of meditation looking at it and listening to it, trying hard to get through, taking life one minute at a time. The ward was completely still, hardly any staff about, so it was just us and the tube. It worked. For that time and space it worked. My son had come across them before, including during his pre-op visit to the ward, and afterwards in other environments, however he's never shown any prior nor any current interest. They simply exist in the world now for him.
Also, I freaking LOVE all those suppliers too! Almost everything in my shows is sourced from one or other of them - that's not the issue either: and I do absolutely LOVE sensory rooms and spaces and have had some wonderful encounters in them with children, young people, and adults alike!
The issue is that sensory rooms suffer from a lot of unhelpful stereotypes, such as: they should be dark, filled with colourful and moving lights. Footage on Children in Need or Comic Relief of sensory rooms in hospices, the marketing images in sensory catalogues (especially the ones making and selling sensory technology), and the beautiful Instagram posts shared by other people who've already transformed a room into a wow-worthy sensory space, all contribute to quite a rigid and limited understanding of what a sensory room is. The focus is very much on what the room has in it, rather than on what it's actually for.
If your child NEEDS a bubble tube, then they should definitely have one - B&M do some lovely affordable ones, for example....but that's the starting point: what does your child NEED? Not what do they WANT (a Nintendo Switch and a bucket of cucumbers, for my two boys), nor what you want (a hammock and some truly epic coffee)...or even what you, yourself, need (a shower that doesn't leak). It's about your child. Unless you're planning a sensory room for yourself, of course!
We have the five senses that everyone knows about - touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing - but increasingly, especially for children with AS or SPD, you may also know about proprioception (the sense that tells us where our body is in space so we can touch our nose with our eyes shut, or judge the distance of a jump); interoception (the sense that tells us what's going on inside our body - are we hungry, thirsty, needing a wee, etc); and sometimes the vestibular sense is also put as a sense on its own - the vestibular system helps us to balance and is based in the inner ear, when our vestibular system is spun around then we may get dizzy, for example: some people LOVE that sensation, others (like me) hate it! A sensory room built around dark and light may only stimulate some of those senses, and what if they're the senses that your child doesn't actually need to be stimulated? Bubble tubes may be exactly the right thing, or they may be a lovely thing that has an initial burst of novelty but no long term benefit or use...the graveyard of unused and unloved bubble tubes is a sad place of broken dreams and damp carpets!
So, here's the place to start: what will the sensory room be used for?
Is it a place to calm down? Is it a place to work on relationships and communication? Is it a place to move and release energy? Is it a place where you will work on physiotherapy, speech therapy, or other therapeutic input? Will your child sometimes need to do all of these?
Then, reflect for a minute: putting aside a room in your house as a dedicated sensory space is a huge gift and sacrifice all at once. It's a gift to be able to offer your child a space where some important needs can be met, but your house only has so many rooms and giving up such a big space may mean some of your other spaces have to work harder to compensate for the loss: can your home and your family make that compromise on space? Do the benefits outweigh the losses? Putting aside a whole room and equipping it to your child's needs is a big investment of time, energy, space, and money - you need to be sure that it will earn its keep....or, you could think about temporary/pop-up spaces instead, and get them out when needed.
Photography tents/pods make a good alternative to ones specifically marketed as sensory pods, or you can buy poles and connectors by FormUFit and make your own; I thread curtains with eyelets along the poles, or drape fabric - bedsheets and duvet covers are great, tarpaulins, camouflage netting or space blankets on mine to provide coverage. Some Children's Centres, hospices, nurseries and schools allow you to hire their sensory spaces for a small fee: would this be a better alternative, or at least a chance to try out some spaces to see how your child responds to them to give you a better idea of what would be useful at home?
So, will it be a whole room, or could it be a temporary space? What will it mainly be used for?
Then, think about your child.
What feelings will they be going into the space with? How would you like them to feel at the end of their time in there? If the aim is calm - and it often is - what places and spaces does your child tend to show their calm in? If they're most usually calm outdoors, then it may not be a sensory space you need but more outdoor time, so would changes to your garden be more useful instead?
Often parents/carers think that having a sensory room will help their child to regulate, or that it will be a safe space to be in when they're in meltdown or feeling very overwhelmed. Sensory spaces can really help with this...but don't build a sensory space in the hope that you can turn your child loose into it and that, by the pure magic of twirly lights, their big feelings and dysregulation will disappear and you can all get on with your day. Children are wired to thrive on connection to others, even when they appear to be ignoring you. The power of a sensory space can be hugely enhanced by you being in it or near it with your child - you don't need to talk to them, play with them, or touch them; just your presence, your calm breathing, your curiosity and interest in what they're doing, can achieve HUGE amounts for your child's regulation and wellbeing; don't put your child in a room and walk away, it's not a container or 'baby sitter'. Sensory resources, especially the cheaper ones, do need adult supervision for safe usage too; and, if you're taking your child there to calm down and they're entering the space feeling very scared, anxious, angry, etc, then you need to be prepared for the fact that sensory resources may well be thrown, bashed, kicked, turned into projectiles or weapons, etc.
If your child needs physical resources and experiences to manage through a meltdown, does it need to be a room or a dedicated space? Could it be in their bedroom, could it be via a body sock (a lycra sack you can climb inside), could it be under the dining table, could it be on the swings in the local park? What works best for your child? A sensory space isn't a 'one size fits all' remedy for meltdown.
So, with that all in mind, what kind of sensory experiences does your child NEED, and what do they like/not like? If they like lights, then go with lights...but you have seven or eight senses to explore, and lights may mostly just work with vision (and sometimes hearing because they can emit a hum too, or bubbles in the case of those darned bubble tubes, and maybe a bit of vibration) and not deliver much more: what senses elicit big responses for your child? If they love movement, then go for resources that enable them to experience those movements; conversely, if they hate movement then no matter how pretty, cool, well-recommended an item is then don't buy it - I remember one family I met went to enormous lengths to find the money to buy a spinning 'egg' chair from Ikea because it was on a list of sensory stuff for children like theirs, even though they knew their child hated spinning and didn't like enclosed spaces! Needless to say their son showed them exactly what he thought of it by ripping the canopy off the first time he encountered it. They were gutted.
The home sensory spaces I often see pictures of are beautiful. Beautifully decorated, packed with gorgeous and clever things, beautifully laid out with areas for this and that...but, a sensory space doesn't need to look pretty. It doesn't need to be Instagram-worthy. It doesn't need a wow of approval from another grown-up: it needs the seal of approval from your child.
A great sensory space for your child could simply be a totally empty room painted white!
If you ever moved house as a child and had the joyful experience of going into a totally empty room, especially when a room in a very familiar house is suddenly emptied of everything, then you'll know that feeling of space - it's magical! Imagine finding that magic whenever you need it behind a door in your own home! Personally, I'd love it! I'd lie on the carpet and look out at the sky, or read a book, or dance, or when one of my children is having a tough time we might go in there and do headstands against the wall or roll across the carpet to see if we can get from one wall to the other...but that's because this would meet my needs and, sometimes, my sons' needs too. It's not for everyone.
Look through your child's eyes at the space you have available, and then design from there. If the room needs to be calm and somewhere that reduces sensory overload, then don't clutter it with colours or stuff. How does your child find calm? If they find the dark scary, then don't go for a dark space.
Which senses does your child gain most calm, joy, excitement, curiosity, etc, from? What activities, items or resources could enhance these? Remember, they don't need to come from a catalogue or cost very much at all: a stack of large cardboard boxes for building with and knocking down, a long swathe of thick lycra fabric for wrapping/swinging/ pulling, giant bubblewrap tacked to a wall for popping or rolling along, some pots and pans for banging, etc, can cost pennies and create wonderfully helpful experiences for your child - with you alongside for support.
Also, sensory rooms and spaces don't need to be static: they're not like decorating your living room where you'll probably have the same sofa and curtains for many years. If your sensory room remains static then children may lose interest in it and the items you carefully chose will just become things that gather dust and lose their benefit; conversely, some children thrive on knowing that their sensory space is always consistent as it helps them to feel safe when things are predictable and familiar. What does your child need?
If having some versatility would be useful, think about having vinyl flooring or other waterproof surfaces put in and using the space for water play or sand play, for example, or putting down tarpaulin and covering the floor in straw, peat, bark chippings, etc. If your child has a particular special interest then theme their sensory space to that: imagine a land for dinosaurs to roam in filled with potted ferns, trays filled with a range of natural materials to form landscapes from the desert to a grassland, you could make a volcano out of cardboard and fill it with lava pom-poms and scarves that can be thrown or spread to make an eruption, put some 'jungle' sounds on a music player as background noise, etc....the limit is your imagination, and your child's sensory tolerance levels: this could be WAY too much for some, but paradise for others.
A sensory space could be covered with paper from floor to ceiling with a big pot of pens and stickers in the middle so you can draw and decorate all around, up high and down low. It could be a bin full of Lego or giant soft blocks, or a world made of play dough, it could have a Gorilla Gym in it or a climbing wall, it could be filled with pillows and blankets to lounge on or make dens from - it can be whatever your child needs it to be!
Your child's sensory needs may well evolve over time, so a flexible space will allow that to happen too.
But, do you mean a sensory room, or do you mean a play room? Play can and does involve sensory experiences, and sensory experiences can be very playful , but a play room and a sensory room are not the same thing: a sensory space is about offering sensory experiences that stimulate and integrate the senses in order to achieve an effect - that could be to find calm and connection to others, or it could be to work on motor skills, or to provide lighting conditions that allow a person's eyesight to work at their optimum if they have a visual impairment, etc. A play room doesn't have that same agenda: it's more open-ended and can be used for any outcome or none, and may well include toys and activities that have little or no sensory benefit e.g. a room with a computer gaming system in is not a sensory room. One is not better than the other, it's what your child needs and what fits in with your house and family.
Also consider, who else may be using the sensory space - will it be solely for one child? Will it be accessible to siblings and, if so, how are their needs similar or different from each other, and how will you accommodate everyone? Will it need to become a guest bedroom, dining room, etc, sometimes? If so, how will you manage this change for your child?
The bottom line is: you know your child.
Design the sensory space they most need for now.
It doesn't need to cost a fortune, nor does it need any typical sensory items in it unless your child would love and benefit from them. It doesn't need to look pretty or special: it's there to do a job, so functional but inviting is more important. It does need to involve you: you will be using it too, it's not a space to park your child in. So, here are the questions I'd be asking myself....
A a lot of this is about giving you some things to think about as you work on this project, however talk to and involve your child - it doesn't matter if they're non-verbal: they can still show you what they need, express preferences, etc - ask them what they need the room to be for and what they need in it to make that thing happen.
And lastly: you don't have to have one at all! It's a nice thing for many people, but not always an essential thing to have....much like a bubble tube!
Articles, resources and ideas from Julia