In a room illuminated only by a lightup ball pit, colorful tubes, fiber-optic ropes draped over a swinging chair and psychedelic patterns projected on the walls, 3-year-old A.J. Gaskin sprints from corner to corner, giggling with delight.
With calm, ambient sounds playing in the background, A.J. goes between a floor-to-ceiling bubble tube and the round remote control he uses to turn it on and off and change the color. He switches directions and clambers into the tall kiddie pool filled with clear balls, made to look like a bubble bath.
"Hey," he calls to a staff member. "Do you want to go with me into the ball pit?"
The multisensory room — known by its Dutch name, Snoezelen — is part of A.J.'s applied behavioral analysis therapy for his autism spectrum disorder. PARC, a local nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities, opened the room this year as part of its new Autism Behavioral Center in St. Petersburg.
Snoezelen — a blend of two Dutch words meaning "explore" and "relax" — was invented in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The rooms use specialized, brand-name equipment that stimulates the senses with sound, light, color, texture and aroma. They're designed to help individuals with developmental disabilities, dementia and some neurological problems to regulate how much sensory stimulation they experience.
A.J.'s mom, Tinamarie Gaskin, said that when she first saw her rambunctious son plunge into the ball pit — and then relax — she was amazed.
"It was the first time I saw him sit still," said Gaskin, a 40-year-old call center manager from Gulfport. "I wanted to take a picture."
She added that in the past two months PARC's therapy plan has helped her son tremendously. At home, A.J. can't be more than a few feet away from his mom. But when he goes into the Snoezelen, he asks his mom to wait outside. He's also much better at handling his emotions and stopping tantrums before they happen.
"I was at my breaking point," she said, noting that she works six days a week to accommodate A.J.'s therapy.
The center serves all ages but was designed primarily for children. To fit parents' schedules, it's open daily, including nights and weekends. There are rooms for private therapy and family observation, and staff members work with families, their finances and schools to develop treatment plans.
"We're filling a great need in Pinellas County," said Karen Higgins, PARC's president and chief executive.
There are close to 1,200 Snoezelen rooms in North America, according to FlagHouse, the company that provides the equipment. PARC has the only multisensory room with official Snoezelen equipment in the Tampa Bay area.
In the Snoezelen, a child with autism learns what it feels like to calm down and escape from an overstimulating environment, said Linda Messbauer, an occupational therapist who established the first Snoezelen in the United States in 1992. When they re-enter a stressful environment, children can think back to the Snoezelen room, which helps them relax. Then, they are more receptive to other types of therapy and education.
"You're putting the brain on vacation," Messbauer said. "You're taking it out of the stress and the sensory processing issues that (children with autism) have."
Messbauer noted that she once took a 4-year-old boy who had never spoken a single word into a Snoezelen room for his first session. At the end, she asked if he wanted to come back, to which he replied, "Yes, tomorrow."
By being able to choose where he goes, the activities he does and the colors of the lights, A.J. learns independence, said Dru Millerwise, PARC director of behavior services and A.J.'s therapist. The calming nature of the room also helps him focus and prepare for therapy.
The Autism Behavioral Center and the Snoezelen room still have room to grow, Higgins said. When complete, about $80,000 will have been spent on the Snoezelen. The seed money came from donations, and PARC is pursuing grant opportunities.
PARC hopes to get more bubble tubes, a better stereo system and devices to make the ball pit vibrate and disco ball spin.
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