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Pasco sensory room a comforting resource for students with autism

LAND O'LAKES — For a kid with autism, the bus ride to school can be really tough. So can the trek down a crowded school hallway, never mind the din of the cafeteria. Even a lesson that feels too long can trigger a roadblock to learning.

For students who have trouble processing sensory information such as movement, lights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes, a sensory diet that integrates therapeutic play activities with school work can foster better concentration, engagement and self-regulation skills.

In Pasco County schools, these tools and activities often are used during scheduled occupational therapy sessions or brought into the classroom in a rolling "sensory cart" that can be stored away when not appropriate.

But for Pine View Elementary students enrolled in the social-behavioral communication program, a new sensory room just a few steps from their classroom provides a permanent safe space to decompress, self-soothe or engage in an activity that can help them get back to the lesson at hand.

"A lot of out students are non-verbal, so they can't express what they need — what's bothering them — and this really helps with that," said Meaghan Windisch, one of three social-behavioral communication teachers at Pine View.

For example, Windisch said, just a few minutes rolling with a couple of physio balls in the sensory room has worked wonders for one of her non-verbal 5-year-old students.

"That 30-minute bus ride is hard for him — especially because our kids have to be restrained with safety devices," she said. "That time (in the sensory room) really makes his morning."

The sensory room is in a refurbished classroom that connects three classrooms for students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. It encompasses four stations stocked with equipment selected to meet the individual needs of students evaluated by school occupational and physical therapists.

"It's not a catch-all therapy," Windisch said. "What is good for one student, might not work for another student. After awhile, they know what they need — go to what they need."

Children who are overstimulated can de-escalate by throwing themselves on a crash mat, jumping on a mini trampoline or rolling around in a ball pit in the "Vestibular Zone," Windisch said. Those who find comfort in feeling pressure on their body, can push themselves through a squeeze machine or roll-hugger, that works along the lines of an old-fashioned clothes wringer. The "Transition Circle" features a colorful fabric tunnel to crawl through, which slows the sometimes frantic run to the bathroom. Colored plastic, magnetic building tiles in the "Tactile Circle," can be soothing for those who like the feel and sound of snapping the tiles together, the rattling sound they make when flicked back and forth, or the way they look when laid out on a back-lit table. Finally, the "Visual Stimulation Zone," located in a former office space, offers a quiet spot to hang out while taking in the calming light of a swirling bubble-tube lamp.

It's a great place for anyone to wind down in, Windisch said. "On our lunch breaks you'll often find us in here."

Not all students benefit from sensory therapy, but for those that do, the in-house sensory room provides easy access, said Jeannine Welch, assistant director of student support programs and services for Pasco County schools. "Then you can just close the door when you don't need it."

The program will serve as a template for other schools, Welch said, noting that while some sensory rooms can cost upwards of $50,000, there are affordable alternatives.

Equipment for the Pine View Elementary sensory room cost about $10,000, and was a gift from the Sydney Has a Sister Foundation. The local nonprofit, founded by Ernie and Becky Black of Land O'Lakes, awards scholarships to graduating high school seniors with a sibling who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Their wish was to give recognition to kids like their eldest daughter, Sydney, who has been a constant friend and patient caretaker for her younger sister, Regan, who was diagnosed with a variety of special needs. Since its inception, the foundation has given about 60,000 in scholarships to graduating high school students locally and throughout the country.

"The primary directive (of the foundation) is still scholarships," Ernie Black said, adding that the idea to expand and help kids like Regan was part of the long-term plan.

After touring a stand-alone sensory room at an elementary school in Jacksonville, the Blacks decided they wanted to do something in Pasco and approached the school district.

Pine View Elementary was a good fit, Welch said, particularly since the school was slated to take in more students when the social-behavioral communication program was transferred there from nearby Lake Myrtle Elementary for the 2017-2018 school year.

Principal Kay Moore was eager to jump on board, but initially was thinking of a allotting a smaller space.

Ernie Black had other ideas.

"His vision was a big vision, but it became a shared vision," Moore said, noting that district administrators, school occupational and physical therapists, as well as Ernie and Becky Black, worked to develop the Pine View program.

Over the summer, the school revamped the center classroom. Teachers underwent special training. Ernie Black got to work looking for deals on equipment.

"It's wonderful — we're so very grateful," Moore said, adding that the sensory room helped ease the transition for former Lake Myrtle students and their parents.

"We have more students with a variety of needs, and now we have the equipment to meet those needs," she said. "We had limited resources before. Now, we have an abundance of resources."

It doesn't end there. The foundation plans to fund a similar effort at a school in Hillsborough County, where the bulk of their donors are located, as well as more in Pasco schools.

"Giving back to the schools that supported our child with special needs is important to us," Becky Black said. "We're not just helping individual students, but groups of students, and that it is being done for an educational purpose is meaningful also. This isn't just play time. This has been prescribed for them. It really has a purpose in helping them with their education."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com. Follow @MicheleMiller52.

RELATED: Scholarships give notice to kids who have siblings with autism

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