One child swings from the ceiling. Another spins in a Pac-Man-like device on the floor. Across the room, a third student walks barefoot atop a trail of plastic, bumpy bricks.
It looks like an indoor playground, but this is serious business, designed to help students whose nervous systems are inefficient at processing sensory information. It's part of a unique therapy at the Pepin Academies, a series of charter schools for special-needs students.
"We've always known the sensory aspect was something we needed to focus on," said Celeste Kellar, the elementary school director. While students at the school received occupational therapy services in the past, there wasn't enough space or equipment for the type of movement they needed most, she said.
So the school opened the new, multi-sensory lab this year to provide therapy for kids with sensory processing issues. Few schools across the nation have such an elaborate facility for dealing with the problem, which is proposed for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Pepin created the center through donations, including a $20,000 grant from the 13 Ugly Men Foundation, a local nonprofit group.
The school, at 3916 E Hillsborough Ave., draws students with learning and learning-related disabilities from kindergarten through age 22 from all over Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. It is the only nontuition school of its kind in the state, said Crisha Scolaro, a founder of and community liaison for the Pepin Academies. The new multisensory lab will be available during an array of summer programs for elementary and middle school students who need it.
Students with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism and Asperger syndrome frequently struggle to process sensory information — sights, sounds, feelings, spatial awareness — and make sense of it, said Carol Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping With Sensory Processing Disorder.
"Our brain says, 'You are going to fall off this tree branch,' or 'You have touched something hot,' " Kranowitz said. "Most of us — after falling off tree branches, touching hot things — we learn how to respond appropriately, how to survive."
For children who struggle with sensory integration, daily life can be chaotic and scary, and schoolwork suffers. Sensory therapy helps a struggling child make sense of the sensations they experience in everyday life.
"Forget trying to teach a child who is not feeling safe," she said. "His senses are not giving him messages that he can manage or interpret."
One morning in the sensory lab, 13-year-old Alison Adkins could be found crawling inside a large, sacklike swing hanging from the ceiling. Occupational therapist Rebecca Day pushed the swing back and forth. The experience was calming for Alison, who has Asperger's and ADHD.
"It's comfortable like a sleeping bag," Alison said. "I'm being a cocoon in here."
During therapy, Day and the team of occupational therapists who work at the Academies help children find what they refer to as a "just right" state.
"This is where you are self-regulating," Day said. "You're not overaroused or underaroused. It's where your optimal functioning is."
And a "just right" state of mind is what students need to make academic progress, she said.
Whether it's practicing handwriting while sitting on an exercise ball or jumping on a small trampoline, each activity is designed to help students achieve academically. Teachers say time spent in the lab makes students more productive in the classroom.
"The lab has been great for us," said Kellar, the elementary school director. "If a child is extremely hyperactive, they jump on the trampoline and come back ready to focus."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at [email protected]