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Baggaley Elementary School room appeals to senses

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Kara Stenger, an autistic support teacher  at Baggaley Elementary School on September 19, 2012. 
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Kara Stenger, an autistic support teacher at Baggaley Elementary School on September 19, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

A Baggaley Elementary School teacher is undertaking a big challenge to transform a small conference room into space that can be used to better the lives of children with autism.

A multisensory room in the Unity school will provide a controlled place where students with autism can interact with their environment, said Kara Stenger, an autism support teacher in the Greater Latrobe Area School District.

“The environment can be changed to reflect each individual's needs. Many students with autism have difficulty with sensory processing. They do not process their environment as someone without autism would. Sights, sounds and temperature may really bother them or they may have no effect at all,” said Stenger, whose class has eight students in grades one through six.

After weeks of preparing the conference room to become a multisensory environment — removing tables, changing lighting and rearranging electrical outlets to suit the design — the district plans to open the multisensory environment to students on Wednesday , after a day of training for the school's special educations teachers, Stenger said.

Upon entering, students will see two bubble tubes that change colors, a “vibromusic” platform that vibrates with music played in the room, soft padded play areas, mirrors, fiber-optics, a tactile board, bean bags, a sound system, a mirror ball and a projector for large-scale images.

Families can see and experience the room during an open house scheduled for 6 to 7 p.m. Oct. 10.

Students in Stenger's class may use the room for varying lengths of time, based on their needs, she said.

The sensory stimulation can be intensified or reduced as needed. That stimulation can be presented in isolation or combination, packaged for active or passive interaction, and matched to fit the motivation, interests, leisure, relaxation and therapeutic or educational needs of the user, she added.

While the room has the elements of an area where students could play, it's not intended for that, Stenger said. Teachers will monitor students' use of the room.

“It's not a place for the kids to come and do nothing. It's for therapy, and this is part of their educational experience,” said Stenger.

Multisensory rooms are becoming more popular as a way of modulating the sensory system of children with autism, said Jeryl Benson, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Duquesne University's Rangos School of Health Sciences.

“Children with autism have sensory problems, and a lot of times, the information they are getting upsets them. They take it in and process it differently than others,” such as associating pain with a soft touch on the arm, said Benson, who has done clinical research on children with autism.

Rooms with specialized furnishings are important because they give the children “a chance to experience sensory information, but in a positive way,” Benson said.

Research has shown that people appear happier in a multisensory environment and tend to vocalize more and stay on task. For those with self-injurious or autistic behaviors, the gentle stimulation has a soothing effect and helps relieve agitation and promote relaxation, according to the Christopher Douglas Hidden Angel Foundation in Gadsden, Ala.

The school was involved in efforts that have raised more than $32,000 for the project, Stenger said.

Among those efforts, the McFeely-Rogers Foundation provided a $14,000 grant for the initiative, while the Hidden Angel Foundation provided an $11,740 grant. School groups raised $2,500.

The multisensory room cost about $24,000, and the remainder of the money raised was used to create a sensory environment room at Greater Latrobe Junior High School, Stenger said.

Several privately funded schools in the area have multisensory environment classrooms, Stenger said, but she believes Greater Latrobe will be the first public school in Westmoreland County with such a room. Stenger's autistic support classroom has six students from the three elementary schools in Greater Latrobe and two students from Derry Area.

Stenger wants to continue fundraising efforts this year to provide satellite sensory environments at Greater Latrobe's two other elementary schools and the junior high school.

“Our goal is to get a sensory corner in Mountain View Elementary School and Latrobe Elementary School. We recognize this isn't the only school with autistic children,” Stenger said.

The Westmoreland Intermediate Unit provides several autistic support classrooms throughout the county, but not a multisensory environment.

“It is my hope that with the addition of a multisensory environment, we will be able to keep these students in their home district where their neighborhood friends and siblings are. Socialization is extremely important for students with autism, and building these friendships becomes much harder when the students are educated outside of their neighborhood school,” Stenger said.

Stenger's students will continue to use her current classroom for academics. It has a small trampoline, some stress balls that youngsters can toss to release energy, rice bins, sand tables and special seats. That enables her and her teaching assistants to provide sensory input on a smaller scale, Stenger said.

“Our goal is to get those kids back to the regular classroom,” even if it is for just some classes, Stenger said.

Stenger said she believes the multisensory room could help more students than just those with autism.

“There are students in our school with visual impairments, certain speech and language impairments, and sensory needs that are not educated in my classroom. These students would also benefit from a multisensory environment,” Stenger said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or at

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