For many people with autism, the sights and sounds of the world can be overwhelming. Others, however, need to stimulate their senses — by rocking, for example, or by running a hand across a smooth wall.
Specially designed sensory rooms offer autistic people options. They can escape all the noise and lights of the world or lie beneath weighted blankets or swing slowly.
Usually these rooms are built for schools or centers that serve people with special needs, but one Baton Rouge family decided to incorporate a sensory room into their own home.
A local builder worked with interior designers and occupational therapists to create the room and help enrich life for their active, energetic boy.
"You are creating quality of life, dignity, more than you are just rebuilding a room," said Tom Ashley, of Expand Inc., a home remodeling company that rebuilds rooms to fit certain needs.
While the family that hired Expand to build the sensory room did not wish to be named or interviewed by The Advocate, they did approve of sharing the project with the public.
Built in a former storage area, the sensory room was created to serve as a place of respite, with light, muted colors.
For the boy with autism, Expand built a raised deck that created a cave area where he can crawl in and retreat to his own world and play video games. On top of the deck, a soft rubber floor adds a spongy spot to sit or lie, and special lighting produces soothing purple and blue hues. Two ceiling-mounted swings in the middle of the room provide a place to gently rock.
Because the boy loves toy soldiers and Captain America, Expand included military-themed touches in the room. Instead of handrails, the designers included paratrooper webbing and straps.
The room is designed to be used by the entire family, with a comfortable seating area and a small bar and desk area for writing or eating.
Expand typically works with people who want to stay in their homes as they age. Doorways are widened to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, bathtubs are lowered and walk-in showers are installed, along with railings around the home.
Started in the early 2000s, it took a while for homeowners to catch on, Ashley said. Before interior designers began working with them, the first designs were too clinical, he said.
“The equipment was stainless steel grab bars and high toilets," Ashley said. "People just run from you if you want to put that in their house.”
As his company earned experience with customers age 55 and older, Ashley also began getting calls from families with children and teenagers with special needs. One woman needed help lifting her son into a bath tub. Another young man had to have bars attached to the ceilings of some rooms so he could lift himself and grab onto them for balance.
Occupational therapists who work with these families often coordinate designs with interior designers and the contractor.
"I’m not an (occupational therapist). I’m not a medical specialist," Ashley said. "But with them sitting at the table, I can innovate and tell them how we can make something happen there."
These kinds of projects are rewarding, Ashley said.
“The fun part is we’re really not builders," he said. "We’re troubleshooters.”
Earlier this year, Ashley won the Certified Aging in Place Specialists Designee of the Year Award at the International Builders' Show and the Capitol Region Builders Association Award for his work.