How do we label our Sensory Rooms in Schools? What message are we sending our children with ASD?

It occurred to me that many schools use different terminology to label rooms for children with special needs.  Some schools call it “Quiet Room,” “Sick Room,” “Sensory Room,” “Calming Room,” or “Blue Room.”  What does your child’s school call this space wherein children are sent who are not coping in the classroom?  Does your child understand the purpose of that room? Does your child feel that this is a punishment room? Does your child seek this room to avoid participating in classroom activities?

What does a label infer? How does the child interpret the “purpose” of that room? If we call it a “Sick Room” then the child with ASD will automatically assume that they need to be ill in order to access that space.  From a behavioral point of view, this child would then be “reinforced” for being “sick” which, as you can imagine, would lead a child to feign illness in order to leave the classroom.  Do we really want to encourage illness in children who know no bounds? I have met many children with ASD who will self-induce vomiting.  What about “Quiet Room?” What occurs in that space? Is it always quiet or are there noises that we hear when we are in that room?  Children with ASD are very literal communicators.  If you tell a child that they are going to a “Quiet Room” and they discover that the room still has noises (which is inevitable given the lack of sound-proofing in walls of schools, the fact that the number one sensory-sensitivity in ASD is auditory sensitivity and the fact that we may introduce sounds to that room that include soft music for relaxation purposes).  “Sensory Room” is a label that won’t make a lot of sense to many children as it is an abstract concept.  “Blue Room” (unless it is painted blue, and the absolute correct shade of blue that the child anticipates) is another label that may actually contribute to the stress of a meltdown.

I encourage all schools to consider developing a smarter language when labeling specific spaces that are intended for children with ASD.  It may be helpful to consider streamlining this concept to be Province-wide so that our children can reliably scope-out the safe places to go (even after changing schools) during times of emotional and physiological dysregulation.  Having the consistency of accurately and succinctly labeling a room that is intended for the same purpose across schools and across school divisions will enable children to trust in the security that adults provide across schools.  Many children with ASD do not like to “go” anywhere with a new person (educational assistant).  If the label of the space is consistent across the province this will improve our children’s trust in knowing that there will consistently be a safe place to go, no matter who is bringing them there.

I encourage the use of ‘safety’ in the label.  My recommendation would be to call all of our “Sensory, Blue, Sick, Calm or Chill-Out Rooms” in Schools across the Province the “Safe Zone.”  This would infer a safe place for children to go, to receive the care that they need to feel better, regardless of the cause of dysregulation.

Please share for the benefit of our children with special needs.

Thank you,

Tamara Rogers, O.T. Reg. (MB)