Sensory experiences in the spotlight with new room at UOW Discovery Space
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Sensory experiences in the spotlight with new room at UOW Discovery Space

by Freya Lucas

March 31, 2021

A new sensory room has been created at the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Early Start Discovery Space, designed to help children to use their senses to make sense of the world around them – an especially important resource for children and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 


Launched on 30 March, the sensory room has been specially designed to stimulate children’s touch, sight, smell and other senses, and is known as The Sanctuary. 


The Sanctuary will be a safe space for all visitors, including children with ASD, to engage in sensory play, something Early Start Education and Experiences Manager Martha Johnson said is crucial for brain development.


“Children use their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them,” Ms Johnson said.


“Providing children with opportunity to actively use their senses is crucial to brain development as it helps build nerve connections in the brain pathways, which helps with the greater development of the child.”


Offering opportunities for sensory play leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex tasks, supporting cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interactions and problem solving skills, she explained.


“Sensory play encourages one to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information, strengthening sensory-related synapses and functions.”


Items in The Sanctuary include lights, mirrors, tactile objects, cushions, a sling swing, bubble tubes, light tables, weaving wall, optic curtain, sensory den, weighted blankets and a memory foam mat.


World Autism Day 


The opening of The Sanctuary has been designed to align with World Autism Day on Friday 2 April.  While many children on the autism spectrum find benefit from sensory play, there is as yet no evidence that sensory rooms provide additional help to children on the spectrum.


As such, the Discovery Space is launching an inclusive approach to all children on World Autism Day because of its capacity to provide multiple opportunities for all children to learn from their peers.


For children living with autism, this can be achieved by facilitating valuable play experiences that redirect the child’s focus of attention from objects and unusual details in their environment, back to people – their faces, voices and actions.


This in turn helps them to learn at a more rapid rate, from their peers and all of the people around them in everyday moments and routines, a UOW spokesperson said. 


Professional development opportunities


UOW Early Start is also running workshops for parents, educators and therapists on a play-based intervention, specifically designed for young children with autism called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).


Early Start Community Engagement Coordinator and ESDM Trainer Elizabeth Aylward said ESDM focuses on play and routines, and integrates both behavioural and developmental principles to empower children with autism to become active participants in the world around them. 


“ESDM aims to increase the development of play skills, cognition, imitation, joint attention, social skills and communication, while also decreasing the symptoms of autism,” Ms Aylward said.


“Research has found that ESDM can significantly improve cognitive skills and behaviours of children with autism.


“It is a naturalistic intervention underpinned by play-based learning, the development of secure and reciprocal relationships, and the promotion of communication. By following a child’s interests and choices, it also optimises motivation.”


Following training, the ESDM can be implemented at home by parents and trained therapists, in clinics by healthcare professionals, and in early childhood education settings by qualified staff.


For more information about the importance of sensory play in the early years, please see here

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