How to Build a Sensory Room at Home, Tips from the Experts
March 9, 2023 Rocio Espinoza
A sensory room is a therapeutic space designed to promote relaxation, calmness, and focus by either providing sensory stimuli or reducing it. They are often used for individuals with sensory processing sensitivity, such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or developmental disabilities.
Table of contents
Sensory rooms typically feature a variety of sensory equipment and tools, such as soft lighting, calming music, textured surfaces, weighted blankets, tactile objects, swings, and balance equipment. These tools offer a variety of benefits, including:
Enhances focus. Sensory equipment and tools in the room can help individuals improve their ability to focus and concentrate on tasks.
Regulates sensory input. Sensory rooms provide a controlled environment where individuals can regulate their sensory input, helping to reduce sensory overload or under-stimulation.
May improve communication. Sensory rooms can be used as a tool to improve communication skills by encouraging individuals to interact with the sensory equipment and with others in the room.
Promotes relaxation and improves mood. The calming environment of a sensory room can help individuals relax and reduce stress and anxiety. Sensory stimulation can help to improve mood and reduce negative behaviors.
Provides a safe space. Sensory rooms provide a safe and controlled environment for individuals who may be prone to wandering, self-harm, or other behaviors that could be harmful to themselves or others.
We reached out to the experts for advice on how to build a sensory room at home, read on to learn more.
The basics of sensory sensitivity
Sensory sensitivity can present in many forms and behaviors. Here’s what the experts had to say.
What is sensory processing disorder?
Sensory processing disorder seems to be something more people have heard of, but not much is known about it. Some many websites and articles will give you the basic definition of sensory processing disorder, which is: “Sensory processing disorders are impairments in responding to sensory stimuli such as impairments in detection, modulation, or interpretation of stimuli.” (Ghanizadeh, 2011) But what does that mean?
Sensory processing disorder can affect one or all sensory systems, including vision, auditory, tactile, taste, and proprioceptive. A person can be over-reactive or under-reactive, which affects how the person responds to sensory stimuli. The best way to understand sensory processing disorder is to look further into ourselves and how we process stimuli. For example, many people avoid crowded places because they are too loud. Is this a sensory processing disorder? Some people love spicy foods. Is this a sensory processing disorder? For those examples, no, it is not a sensory processing disorder, but they are good examples of how different people process different sensory stimuli.
How does it qualify as a disorder? This is the crucial part. We all process sensory input differently; no two people will react to sensations similarly. It becomes a disorder when it affects active participation in daily activities. For example, this can become problematic for those who avoid crowded places when they no longer leave their home, become fearful of crowds, or have emotional outbursts when out in noisy places. For the person who loves spicy foods, this can also become a problem if that is the only food they eat, and their nutrition begins to suffer. Awareness of the difference between sensory processing and sensory processing disorder is essential.
-Wendy Stroda at NAPA Center
What is sensory play?
Sensory play explores the world through touch, movement, texture, smell, taste, or sound.
Sensory play may involve the traditional “five senses” (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling), but our bodies are sensitive in other ways too. Have you ever wondered why children spend so much time crawling around, pouncing on each other, or climbing? That’s their “proprioceptive” abilities at work, helping them sense pressure on their bodies as they jump, snuggle, or squeeze. Have you ever met a child who preferred to walk on uneven surfaces, tottering alongside the sidewalk, balancing on planks and rocks instead? Do your children tip chairs or hang off the back of the sofa? These activities naturally stimulate the “vestibular” senses, helping to develop their balance and sense of position in space.
As you can imagine, sensory play is crucial for a child’s development. It is usually self-directed and highly individualized. You can learn much about a child’s sensory preferences by watching them. ” Sensory-seeking ” children often look for intense experiences, such as hanging from a tree branch, rolling toys down the stairs, or testing interesting new “slime” recipes. Other children are “sensory-avoidant,” so putting their hands in a sticky bowl is the last thing they enjoy; they might happily watch glitter falling through a liquid container instead or gently pet the cat.
Sensory play is often used by children and adults alike to regulate mood. Grownups might call it “taking a walk,” but of course, it’s also a chance to feel a breeze, hear a bird, smell the wet earth, slip on the cool mud and see the leaves tremble on the trees. In other words, sensory play is essential to a happy life.
-Amelia Bowler at Bounceback Parenting
How does sensory play help a child’s development?
Many parents feel like sensory activities are a waste of time, a way to “one up” other parents and shine on social media. I get it. They take time and effort. They can be messy. Some need special sensory equipment. But if you only knew the WHY behind sensory activities, you’d be chomping to incorporate sensory play into every day!
If there is only one thing readers of my site come away with, I want them to remember this fact: Every Kid (and Adult) has Sensory Needs. It doesn’t matter if a child is diagnosed with sensory processing disorder or not. ALL children (and adults) need healthy sensory input.
You’d never deny children their need to breathe air or be fed nutritious food. The need for tactile, vestibular, oral, auditory, and proprioceptive input should be prioritized too! When kids’ sensory needs aren’t being met, they often seek them out socially awkwardly (like chewing on their clothes or screaming in a public bathroom when the toilet flushes.)
So how can you help kids handle all the sensory input thrown at them??? Two words. Sensory. Activities. And in particular, proprioceptive sensory activities.
Proprioception is the ruler over all the other senses. Proprioceptive activities help the brain organize and regulate, making it much easier to handle all the other sensory input coming its way.
Proprioceptive input comes from the joints and ligaments of the body, provides body awareness, and helps one feel secure in space.
There are countless ways to get this input. Focus on gross motor activities that compress the joints, like jumping, running, climbing, pushing, pulling, chewing, and even sitting still with a weighted blanket on you.
Seekers AND avoiders will both benefit from proceptive sensory activities. When people’s proprioceptive “bank” is well stocked, bothersome senses are better tolerated. And kids that seek out strong touch and love movement will also be pleased as punch to be getting the regulation and stability that proprioceptive sensory activities provide.
-Julie Nixon at My Mundane and Miraculous Life
What is sensory integration?
Sensory Integration is a complex neurological process. It is the ability to receive, process, organize and respond adaptively to information received through all of our senses. Our understanding and the theory of sensory integration was initially described and developed by Dr A Jean Ayers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Sensory information from our eyes, ears, nose, skin, mouth, internal organs, inner ear, muscles and joints is continually being processed within the central nervous system. Sensory integration occurs automatically during normal development.
Sensory stimuli changes from a physical sensation to an electrical signal, which is then interpreted by the brain. This is the “processing” facet of sensory integration. Once this information is processed, the cortex allows one to act upon the incoming information.
Humans have eight sensory systems; in addition to visual, auditory, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell) and tactile, there vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive systems.
Our movement system is called our vestibular system. It is located in the inner ear. It aids in balance, tells us about the position of our head in space, and contributes to many skills such as our general organization for specific tasks, regulation of arousal and attention.
The proprioceptive system gives us a sense of our own body. It processes information from muscles and joints; how much force our muscles are exerting, and how fast a muscle is being stretched. It informs us about our body’s position in space, the rate, and timing of our movements, the amount of force needed for tasks, and is critical for maintaining posture and balance. This information is critical to the development of motor skills.
Our interoceptive system gives us information about sensation within our bodies such as heart rate, pain, hunger, thirst, or elimination needs. It is a lesser known sense which is essential for understanding and sensing what is occurring in your own body.
All eight of one’s sensory systems need to efficiently communicate in order to develop the foundational skills needed for skill development.
-Sara Pereira at Sensational Development
How does occupational therapy help with sensory issues?
Occupational Therapists work with children and adults to help them better understand their sensory systems and learn how various sensory inputs can positively or negatively affect the person. Sensory inputs come from the world and can affect each person very differently. For some people, sensory information can be over or under-acknowledged or over or under-responded to; in these situations, a person might have what would be considered sensory issues.
While most people are familiar with the basic 5 sensory systems (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell), occupational therapists look at more systems, check as proprioception (the internal sense of awareness which helps maintain postural control and know how you are moving and where you are in space), vestibular (related to the inner ear and helps keep you balanced and coordinated), and Interoception (the awareness ow what is happening inside your body such as hunger, temperature, emotions, etc.)
Everyone has a unique profile for how they respond to each sensory system. Some people have an increased or decreased awareness of sensory information, which means they may not be as aware of the sensory inputs. For example, a person may be hyper-aware of the tag on their shirt while others may barely notice it’s there. When someone is hyper-aware of a specific type of sensory information, an occupational therapist may introduce the person to this type of input on a gradient scale where they can get exposure to that type of sensory input in small amounts while also doing something pleasurable so they don’t become upset about that input. People should never be forced into doing something they don’t like, and exposure should be slow.
Treatment will also depend on how a person responds to sensory information since a person may be hyper (over) or hypo (under) responsive. Again knowing that a person may have a wide range of responses to sensory information will determine how the treatment is approached. If a person is hyperresponsive, the occupational therapist knows that even with a small amount of sensory information presented, the person may have a tremendous response, making providing treatment on a gradient even more critical.
-Jennifer Davis at JLD Therapy
What are some signs of sensory dysregulation in children?
Sensory dysregulation can look different in different children and may vary depending on the cause – was it too much sensory input or too little? If too much, behaviors may aim to reduce stimulation; if too little, behaviors may seek to increase stimulation. The signs can also range from mild to severe and may worsen depending on how long the child is exposed to dysregulating stimuli. There are some common warning signs you can watch out for, however.
Smells, textures, noises, lighting, and exercise can all affect our mood, so if you’re in a busy, stimulating environment, cues like irritability, impulsivity, and hyperactivity could indicate sensory dysregulation.
More specifically, you may notice behaviors in your child such as: being unable to sit still, trying to leave the location, covering their face or ears, crying, angry outbursts, not following instructions, spinning, hand flapping, hanging upside down, climbing inappropriately on surfaces, chewing on shirt sleeves or collars, screeching or yelling, throwing objects, hitting, kicking, tantrums, shutting down or meltdowns.
Often, kids can’t understand and communicate with the adults around them, and they feel overwhelmed by sensory dysregulation. This is why it’s important to notice changes in children’s behavior and try to reflect on what could be causing the behavior change. Children rely on us to help them understand their feelings and experiences and co-regulate. Modifying the environment or providing a safe space to take a break and explore their senses is one way to help minimize sensory dysregulation.
-Nicole Day at He’s Extraordinary
Planning your sensory room
If a sensory room is right for you and your family, the first step is planning where it will go and what you’ll need to set it up. For kids who don’t experience discomfort in tight spaces, a closet or alcove may be the perfect spot. A handyman can help add or removing shelving, organization systems, and even the closet rod for extra space.
You may also choose to convert a spare room into a sensory room, especially if your child will benefit from a sensory swing. For this type of larger project, plan out the sub-tasks you’ll need to complete before you can add in sensory tools. Break these sub-tasks into sections that you can easily accomplish in small pockets of spare time. It’s also a great idea to set a budget, as even small renovations can easily break the bank!
Sensory rooms: what to include, what to leave out
There is no simple formula for a sensory room. They need to meet the preference of the individual using them. Loud, uncontrollable noise, overly bright lights, and strong unselected smells are things you want to avoid. Eliminating these is easiest through the selection of the location, but extra work can be mitigated if alternate siting is not possible.
When creating a sensory room, it is important to consider the factors that are stressful as well as soothing for the individual.
Room size and ceiling height are important. Some enjoy the feeling of safety a smaller, lower ceiling space provides and others find it claustrophobic and need more room. Ceiling height has a dramatic effect on room comfort. Wall and ceiling color can greatly alter the feel of a room.
Lighting should be controllable for intensity and color with some preferring natural light. With the availability of LED lights, it is easy to have complete flexibility without the flickering of fluorescents some are sensitive to.
Sound must be considered. Some prefer silence and need acoustic dampening. Others enjoy the variety of soft sounds like wind, rain, or ocean waves a sound generator provides. My preference is a stereo with bass I can feel.
Scent is a powerful element. Some want no noticeable scent which requires careful selection of all the items in the room and the use of no scent odor-reducing products. Others like essential oils or outdoor smells with many products that can provide the preferred scentscape.
Furnishing must also be considered. Some like sitting on the floor and other prefer laying on a couch or sitting in a chair. Regardless of choice the most important consideration is the user deems it comfortable.
Lastly, consider climate control as some like a bracing chill, and others find tropical warmth more soothing.
–Tim Goldstein at Neurodistinct
What should be avoided in a sensory room?
Let me begin with a cautionary tale. I was invited to do a workshop on sensory modulation at a residential behavioral program for adolescents. The staff was anxious to show me their new sensory room. The room was small, with rough dark carpeting and a small high window with poor natural lighting. The adolescents were invited to choose the room color, and they chose black and were allowed to write on the walls with special glow crayons that were illuminated by a black light. The room was sparse in terms of equipment, but the one notable piece was a double strobe light. The overall effect was of a cave covered with graffiti with a very irritating strobe. When asked how the kids responded, the staff said they noticed many left more agitated.
We can learn from this example that excellent intentions have gone wrong. The room was not designed by someone who understands practical sensory input and environments, and the staff was not educated in using sensory modalities. There was no well-thought-out purpose for the use of the room. Safety must always be a priority, and the room did not have a safe feel; in fact, it was the opposite. The few tools available were inadequate for learning how to effectively choose tools for calming and alerting, leading to good self-control and safety. Many effective sensory modalities were not being used including calming vestibular input, deep pressure touch, weighted materials, or sound therapy. Users had no way to experiment with sensory tools for regulation that could be available to carry over effective strategies to the discharge environment.
The good news is that after their workshop on using sensory approaches to treatment, the staff became so excited they decided to set up a new room. They chose a space with lovely natural light. They put down comfortable carpeting and shelves to store various sensory tools and activities. They added a rocking chair and comfy beanbag chairs. The room was cozy and inviting, and best of all, the adolescents and the staff loved it, and it became the centerpiece of their therapy approach.
-Karen Moore at The Sensory Connection Program
How do sensory rooms help autism?
Research has shown that sensory rooms can be effective in helping lots of people, including individuals on the spectrum and those with mental health challenges. Sensory rooms are designed to provide a controlled environment where individuals can explore and learn to regulate their sensory experiences in a safe and structured way.
Providing a structured environment for individuals with sensory challenges and autism is important because often minor sensory experiences can be overwhelming or even painful for them. Good sensory rooms are well structured so that the amount and intensity of a sensory experience can be easily controlled and monitored.
Those creating a sensory room often try to fill it with as much multisensory equipment as possible, but this can be counterproductive. Just walking into these spaces can be visually overwhelming for the sensory sensitive. When a sensory room is used to manage overstimulation and stress or to provide sensory integration therapy to individuals, it is essential to modulate the amount and intensity of each sensory experience.
A sensory room can also be an effective space to work on communication and socialization. Sensory rooms are fun to explore. Individuals often use them on the spectrum, and teachers, support staff, and peers. For those with social and communication challenges, the multisensory environment can create a safe and relaxed space that makes communicating and interacting with others easier. Shared experiences with the equipment can encourage social interaction and support relationship building.
Overall, sensory rooms can be a valuable tool for individuals on the spectrum, teachers, support staff, and those who struggle with mental health challenges. They provide a safe and controlled environment to explore and regulate sensory experiences, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote communication and socialization.
-Bonnie Arnwine at National Autism Resources
How can I choose the proper wall color for a sensory room?
First, ask yourself what the sensory purpose of the room is. You can then decide to use a single color all over the room, or different colors in cordoned off areas of the room.
Calming: soften the light coming in and use colors such as white, muted blues and greens, light grey, neutrals and pastels to encourage quiet, peaceful, and safe feelings.
Stimulating/ energizing: Splashes of Orange, Yellow, Red, brighter blues, pinks and greens can help energize your child and get them ready for equipment and tasks that require a just right amount of stimulation and positive energy. The color of your space is just one way to help regulate how a child will react to sensory input, and every child’s sensory needs are different.
-Susan Donohoe OTR/ Sensory Certified at Kozie Clothes
Choosing the right flooring for a sensory room
When considering flooring for your sensory room, make sure it is soft enough for your child. Chances are your kid will fall or crash several times, and the right flooring reduces injuries. If you’re creating a sensory room somewhere with a concrete floor, like a basement, you’ll want to make sure there is plenty of padding.
Thick, high-quality foam tiles that interlock are a very popular option for sensory rooms. You may want to splurge on this flooring because the thin, flimsy ones will not protect or cushion your child when they fall.
Make sure there is extra padding in high-risk areas, like areas you know they are likely to climb and swing. If you already have foam tiles there, you can add an additional mat or rug.
Gel floor tiles can also make the overall sensory room better. These can be used in an area where your child can sit, step on the tiles, or jump, watching the colors ooze and move together.
-Marissa LaBuz, pediatric Occupational therapist and founder of Teaching Littles
The best tools to include in a sensory room
Tactile sensory tools offer a rewarding experience. There are many options to choose from. Therapro’s top picks include:
Fidgets: Fidgets are small, portable, and versatile. Fidgets can offer calming or alerting input depending on their characteristics. To help users better decide which fidget is best for them, the team of occupational therapists at Therapro has put together a free handy guide, Find Your Fidget that is available for download at therapro.com! Pro tip: Fidgets are also a great transition object to help with the move into and out of the sensory space!
Happy Senso: Happy Senso is a sensory gel that offers a unique multisensory experience. It can be sprayed directly into the palms of the hands or on a flat surface (like a table). Squish, press, and slide hands along the cool gel and listen to the crackling and popping sounds it makes. It is available in four different scents and colors for an enhanced sensory experience.
Gel Activity Pads: Gel pads are exactly what they sound like, gel-filled pads that can be pressed and squished with the hands, fingers, or even feet! Available in four different styles, activity ideas are endless; play games (like tic tac toe) or simply enjoy the combined visual and tactile sensory experience. As an added bonus, these gel pads offer slight weight and so can double as a weighted lap pad!
Theraputty Microwavable Exercise Putty. Exercise putty is a great fidget option that can offer a calming/ grounding experience to users. Theraputty Microwavable Exercise Putty is a unique putty that is microwavable allowing users to experience a calming warmth sensation while they knead, roll, or squish the putty.
Calm Strips: Calm Strips are textured sensory stickers with a special reusable adhesive that are designed to be picked, touched, scratched, peeled over and over again. They can be adhered to any surface in a sensory room to add an additional tactile sensory experience and help regulate restless energy.
When it comes to building your sensory space, Therapro is the resource for families and professionals, be sure to check out all of Therapro’s sensory resources at therapro.com!
-Allyson Locke, Chief Marketing Officer and Program Specialist at Therapro
What essential items should go in a sensory room for children with autism?
A sensory room needs to be a space that feels calm and safe. To achieve this, you need to get the environment ‘just right’. This includes dim lighting, minimal noise, soft furnishings and some tools to help with emotional regulation.
The Mellow Mat is the perfect soft flooring option for the sensory room. It has 3cm of padded rebound foam, lots of sensory input from its soft fibres and also absorbs noise. It’s both comfy and calming to lie, sit or roll on.
The sensory room is a place to emotionally regulate, so make sure there are items in there to help achieve this. Weighted items such as weighted blankets or cuddly toys can provide therapy-based deep pressure and relaxation. Books or a set of emotions cards can also be looked at quietly to help with regulation and breathing.
It’s also important to ensure the room is not too bright, as this can be a trigger for sensory overload. Some simple ideas include putting blue cellophane over the windows or lights, adding in a sensory tent or tepee, or a mood lamp.
-Sarah James – Teacher, mother and owner of the NDIS Registered Business The Sensory Specialist Australia
What essential items should go in a sensory room for children with SPD?
A sensory room serves two separate functions for most kids. First, it’s a place they can go to calm down when they’re overwhelmed, a place that is safe, comfortable, and low-stimulation. Second, it’s a place they can go when they’re dysregulated and have the energy to burn, an exciting place that evinces curiosity and is high stimulation. It’s essential to consider both extremes when building a sensory room for your children.
First, designate a portion of the room to be the Safe Space. Many families use a corner and make a small “cave.” Fill this portion with soft, comfortable items like weighted blankets and stuffed animals, ear defenders, headphones, and a white noise machine or a speaker where the child can play gentle, soothing songs from a favorite playlist. Consider including some sachets of favorite scents, like lavender. A dimmer switch, or some other way to keep the lights low or off, can help overwhelmed kids significantly. Some families also like using colored light bulbs to offer dim red light to soothe.
The second portion of the room is where all the excitement goes. Offer opportunities for the entire body with balance beams, a climbing wall, a swing, and some crash pads, or set up an obstacle course with items you find around your home. Include baskets with fidgets your child likes (including silicone chewers!), and building materials like legos, magnetic tiles, or sensory bins. Some children like a projector that creates colored light displays, upbeat music, or a dance floor. Make it fun and creative!
-Danielle Sullivan at Neurodiverging Coaching
Creating a multisensory room for seniors with dementia
Multisensory rooms can be of huge help to seniors, especially those living with dementia, offering a range of cognitive, physical, emotional, and social rewards that can boost their overall well-being and quality of life.