snoezelen_webLeah Myers
The Navigator

Almost everyone has a schedule they must adhere to––whether it’s for school, work, or other commitments. But during a busy week, who doesn’t want an hour to rock out to AC/DC or fall asleep in a large ball pit?

Visitors to Nanaimo’s only Snoezelen room have the opportunity to do just that. The word “Snoezelen” comes from two Dutch words: “snuffelen,” meaning to seek out or explore, and “doezelen,” which means to relax. Snoezelen rooms are both recreational and therapeutic, appealing primarily to individuals with developmental disabilities or those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The Snoezelen room is located on Cavan Street in Nanaimo, and Sue Logan––the Nanaimo Snoezelen room’s attendant––says activity is largely unstructured. For many ASD adults living in group homes, that’s its chief attraction.

“Group homes are very structured; from the time they get up to the time they go to bed, somebody is telling them what they’re eating, what they’re wearing, where they’re going,” she says. “There is no expectation set when people visit the room. This is probably the one hour in the entire day that it’s all about them. If they want to spend an hour in the ball-pit, so be it.”

Like many new visitors, 16-year -old Gabriel Stuart spent most of his first visit swimming through the ball-pit. Gabriel’s mom, Alexandria Stuart, is a Branch Coordinator of the Autism Society of BC. She has seen first-hand how Snoezelen rooms have benefited her autistic son.

Gabriel was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was around five years old. He also has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), meaning his body processes sensory information differently.

Gabriel has been going to sensory stimulation environments, such as Snoezelen rooms, for the last seven years, and Stuart says she’s excited to see them becoming more popular. Gabriel is “not an overly verbal kid,” she adds, but Stuart reports that after spending time in a Snoezelen environment, he is more apt to say a few words to express how he’s feeling.

“The benefits I see are that he just seems calmer overall, more regulated, more focused, more verbal. If his body is regulated, he is able to spend more of his brain power on perhaps interacting with me, which is not something he does all the time.”

Because individuals with SPD process sensory input (visual, auditory, touch) differently, they can become anxious.

“They lose track of where their body is in time and space,” explains Stuart. “Snoezelen rooms are set up with a real science behind the lighting and auditory tone. The opportunity to touch things of all surfaces, and different types of things, will help them reach a more regulated state so they’re less anxious, and frankly just lead a better quality of life.”

The Snoezelen room has been open in Nanaimo since 2008, and Logan, who has worked as the attendant for almost two years, says it’s the best job she’s ever had. “I absolutely love what I do,” she professes. “I love seeing all the amazing little growths [in visitors]. They all do amazing things in their own way.”

For example, Logan explains how monumental it is when clients step out of their comfort zones during a visit of the room. “Stepping outside of the box is huge. Going strictly from, say the ball pit, to something different, can be a huge step. I think, ‘Wow, they did it,’ and they did it without my help.”

She adds that she’s “very protective over her guys” and says that much of her job is about building trust with her clients.

“When you’re dealing with autism and special needs, it takes a long time to build trust, but it can take seconds to lose it. It’s not cool when that happens. It’s very sad because rebuilding is not always easy.”

While initially intended for autism clients, Snoezelen rooms are now also used with individuals who have developmental disabilities, brain injury, and addictions. According to Logan, sessions can be quite individualized, too.

“We don’t always play music, but it depends on who’s in here. A lot of the guys who come in are 26-40 years old, so they like rock-and-roll. I find out what their favourite music is and make CDs for them, and we play it loud.”

Stuart believes that, ideally, all parents of developmentally disabled children should have a Snoezelen room at home. The cost is beyond the budget of many households, but over the years she has created her own version of a sense-stimulating environment in Gabriel’s bedroom.

Gabriel has several quilts and blankets he likes to burrow underneath, a disco ball, and a lava lamp. Stuart says that Gabriel wrote the words “sensory room” on a piece of paper and taped it on his doorway. She adds that his Christmas list included other sensory environment items.

“Christmas is a very exciting time for him,” says Stuart. “He usually breaks his wishlists into categories of things, and one of the categories on his Christmas list this year was ‘Sensory Room.’ He wrote down very specifically a few of the items he has in his sensory room at school. There’s a bubble fish aquarium light and another one that’s kind of like a disco ball.”

As the attendant, Logan has full control over the lights and sounds in the room. Because first-time visits to the room can be overwhelming with sensory stimulations, sessions usually start at a half hour and are gradually raised to a full hour.

Sessions are on a one-person-at-a-time basis, and Logan says this way the full session is all about that person.

The Snoezelen room in Nanaimo is available for booking six days a week, Monday through Saturday. The rate is $20 per hour, but Logan says subsidies are available for caregivers who may not be able to afford that price.

Over the years, Stuart has slowly collected pieces of equipment for Gabriel’s sensory room, trying to create a safe haven for him.

“He’s starting to see his bedroom as his safe, sensory place,” says Stuart, “so when he needs to go and just get away from whatever is happening in the house and chill out, he sees that room as a safe place to go. I love that he’s able to recognize in himself when he needs that. I love that we have the luxury of the space and some of the equipment to create that kind of environment for him, because we’re very privileged to be able to do that.”

Stuart recognizes, however, that not everybody has the resources to create such an environment in their homes, and that’s why she believes having a publicly available Snoezelen room in the community is a privilege.

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