Sensory Room Creates Calm, Relaxing Space for Family Visits

When Shawn Sullivan’s boss asked him during a performance review what his goal would be he didn’t hesitant to say, “creating a sensory room for children who come in for family visits.” Such a room can provide children with sensory processing issues, such as children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a safe, calm and relaxing environment for family time. He showed her the proposal he had been working on for 10 years. His boss accepted it and a little while later the room got approved. 

“I was blown away,” said Sullivan, a Social Service Assistant for the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Child Welfare program. 

Sullivan had been advocating for such a room because he had noticed that their Roseburg office had been seeing a significant increase in number of children with autism. He wanted to provide children with sensory processing issues, such as children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or who are neurodivergent, a safe, calm and relaxing environment for family time. He gave an example: 

Shawn Sullivan with a stuffed elephant toy that emits scents for calming or energizing.

“We had a family where the kids would run from the room every time they had a visit. The initial suggestion was that they were running from the room because of the parents. I suggested it could be something about the room – maybe the lighting. We tried a different room and the kids were OK,” Sullivan said. 

The new sensory room was just recently completed by the ODHS Office of Facilities Management. The ODHS office is at 738 West Harvard, in Roseburg and houses Child Welfare, Self-Sufficiency and Aging and People with Disabilities programs. 

“It’s amazing. It’s what I expected it to be and then some,” Sullivan said, 

All the colors in the room are controlled by a smart phone and can change depending on what the child prefers – blue, green, purple – all colors are available. The patterns on the ceiling can also be changed. There is an elephant stuffed animal that can emit different scents depending on the child’s needs at the time. For example, a lavender scent can be soothing and a mint scent can help energize a child. There are also tactile toys in the shape of an alligator on the wall at the child’s eye level for them to play with. Many of the items, such as the fold-out couch, the floor mats and some of the lighting devices were donated by staff and others. The total renovation cost of the room was a little under $2,000. 

The Sensory Room can change colors and patterns to help children and families feel calm during visits. 

The first reaction to the room was from a mother and her child with Down syndrome who came in for a visit with their caseworkers. 

“She sat on the floor with her child and the first thing the mom said was, ‘This room is very relaxing, isn’t it?’ The child stared at the different patterns on the ceiling for a while and then fell asleep for about 40 minutes. The child is otherwise very active,” Sullivan said.  

A side effect of the new room has been that staff love it. They ask if they can hang out in the room after especially stressful days. Which they can as long as a family is not using it. 

Sullivan explained the benefits of sensory rooms for children with autism: 

  • Children gain access to appropriate sensory stimulation and their bodies learn how to respond appropriately to the stimulation.
  • Sensory rooms can enhance learning adult-directed play, which engages different areas of the brain, leading to improved information retention.
  • Time in a sensory room helps children improve their visual, auditory and tactile processing, as well as fine and gross motor skills.
  • By providing a sense of calm and comfort, sensory rooms help children learn to self-regulate their behaviors, which ultimately improves family time.

“The good news is that utilizing sensory materials in a therapy setting can drastically help the child break the old trauma connections in their brains and rebuild them with healthier connections,” Sullivan wrote in his proposal.  

Sullivan has autism and understands how a child might feel coming in to an ODHS office. 

“I share a lot of similarities with the children that come through our office – and a lot of trauma as kid,” he said. 

He is also one of two RiSE champions. (RiSE is the positive, intentional and inclusive organizational culture of ODHS.) He is also on the ODHS Child Welfare program Americans with Disabilities Act Steering Committee, whose work includes developing tools for staff who work with parents and caregivers or children with disabilities. Before working for ODHS he served on the board for the Washington State Autism Society board. 

Sullivan also wanted to point out that the Oregon Department of Human Services has been the only organization that hired him knowing he has autism. Usually after mentioning that he has autism in a job interview he has not gotten an offer. 

What’s next is that Sullivan would like to see other ODHS offices create sensory rooms for family visits – and maybe also for staff.