Evie Cole has a harder time making it through a school day than the typical 8-year-old.
Since age 3, Evie has grappled with a combination of developmental delays, an intellectual disability and a form of epilepsy that triggers a few minor seizures daily, said her mother, April Cole, 36, of Kennedy. The effects frequently cause Evie to become so overwhelmed and fidgety that she can’t focus and risks distracting her classmates.
Evie and students like her are finding solace, however, in a new addition this year to Montour School District’s Burkett Elementary School in Robinson: a sensory classroom.
There, in a dimly lit, colorful space, Evie can use toys, furniture and stimuli designed to help children dealing with the likes of autism, severe stress or difficulty with motor skills ranging from balance and hand-eye coordination to speech and vision.
“We’ve seen it certainly as something that’s augmented the educational process and really provided support to students in creating an environment where they can truly learn,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.
As research builds to support their effectiveness, similar sensory rooms are popping up increasingly in schools, churches and cultural spaces throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Rooms filled with specialized equipment ranging from bubble walls to textured murals cater to people with special needs.
The concept dates to the 1970s as Dutch researchers explored connections between atmosphere and behavior.
“I am a firm believer in sensory experiences,” said Erika Arbogast of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, which is constructing an enclosed rooftop garden atop its new building in Uptown that includes tactile experiences for the blind as well as those with developmental disorders.
Arbogast draws from a background in children’s behavioral therapy: “I saw it over and over again in these kids that had just worked themselves up to a point where they couldn’t focus on anything but how upset they were. Literally through different sensory experiences, whether it was a weighted vest or just deep pressure, I would see an instant calming in them.”
Evie’s fidgeting and fussiness visibly subside after a few minutes of swaying in the room’s leaf-shaped swing, her mother says.
She can strap on a weighted vest to soothe her erratic muscle movement and relieve stress by taking a break on a musical waterbed beneath a dangling waterfall of fiber optic lights.
“When (her teachers) see something happening, like Evie’s starting to lose focus, they can take her there, she can calm down, rest a little bit, get in the right mindset and then get back to it,” said Cole.
A typical sensory room can cost $20,000 to $50,000, Ghilani said. Montour spent $27,000 for the addition at Burkett.
School officials expect it to accommodate students with a wide range of challenges, from mental-health issues to traumatic brain injuries.
“It helps get students to pay attention, it increases focus and cooperation, and it helps with social skills used every day,” Principal Candice Bostick said.
The rise in sensory rooms comes amid a spike in reported cases of autism, which affects brain development and can make it difficult to communicate or navigate social interactions.
Children with autism can exhibit hypersensitivity to movement, light and sound; a sudden loud noise or dramatic lighting change can elicit painful reactions.
The rate of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has skyrocketed from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Evidence suggests the high rate can be traced partly to diagnoses standards.
But local education officials say they have been stepping up efforts to identify and understand complex student needs that school officials didn’t pay as much attention to decades ago.
“There wasn’t as much information about it in the past,” Bostick said.
“People are starting to learn and understand how a sensory room can benefit individuals.”
Penn Middle School joined Level Green and McCullough elementary schools this fall in offering sensory rooms that include weighted blankets, a bubble tower and a ball pit.
Penn-Trafford High School will have one once its renovation is completed next year.
The Plum School Board is considering installing a sensory room that would double as a secondary life-skills classroom for students in grades 7-12.
The trend goes beyond schools; more cultural, faith-based and recreational groups are advertising sensory experiences.
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers sensory vests and sound-blocking headphones.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra put on its first sensory-friendly show last spring, making accommodations, such as leaving the house lights up and hosting children’s activity stations in the lobby.
Last month, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust partnered with Disney Theatrical Productions for a sensory-friendly show of “The Lion King.”
AMC Loews Waterfront 22 collaborates with the Autism Society to offer sensory-friendly film screenings — during which the “silence is golden” rule is not enforced.
“The audience is coming to a sensory-free thing so they’re not at all surprised when a kid has to get up and walk around,” said Cole, who enjoys taking Evie to such events.
“It’s nice when you find these organizations that are really trying to make sure these kids get to have all the experiences that every other kid has an easy time doing.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
Reach her at 412-380-8514 or email@example.com.