A photo gallery of the various elements in the sensory rooms is at the bottom of the story.
The room in Johnson Obear apartments was empty. Only bare walls and empty, carpeted floors.
And ceiling tiles. Routinely known as “popcorn tiles,” because their texture is bumpy and lumpy.
Students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mosaic program, which helps students with Autism spectrum disorders, looked around the room and had one complaint: the ceiling tiles. “We asked, ‘What would drive you to distraction in here?’ and they said those because they’re not flat,” says Michelle Rigler, executive director of Mosaic. So the tiles were replaced. But that was not the only change in what is known as a sensory room.
It now has low-level lighting, enough to see by but not a glaring, corporate-office feel. Paint has been completed in subdued colors. Weighted blankets feel all snuggly; beanbag chairs don’t make squeaky, annoying noises when you sit in them. There are squishy balls to squeeze, and lights that send soft, wavy shades of blue and green and other colors up the walls.
The whole idea is to give students—all students, not just those in Mosaic—the chance to decompress, to calm down. “Our sensory rooms are for anyone on campus, someone experiencing finals stress or high levels of anxiety. They serve various purposes,” says Amy Rutherford, associate director of Mosaic. “It’s a place for individuals to come in and decompress and really take a moment to pause and have a mindful experience.”
Studies have shown that the reduction in stress and anxiety provided by sensory rooms leads to less conflict among roommates and, generally, better behavior from students overall, she adds.
UTC is unique in its sensory rooms, Rigler says. While other universities have only one such room on campus, UTC has seven. Currently, they are all in residence halls—Johnson Obear, Stophel, Stagmaier, UC Foundation, Decosimo, Guerry and Walker. Each is a little different than the others.
In the planning stages for the rooms, Rigler and Rutherford approached Abeer Mustafa, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and head of housing and residence life, seeing if she might be able to find empty rooms in the buildings. She jumped onboard immediately. “We loved the idea of providing students with space where they could find comfort and resources,” Mustafa says. “We hope that the sensory rooms will provide a calming space that can be utilized for self-regulation with a variety of items in the room so the student can calm down and get focused again and re-engage. The reality is that many students feel anxious and a sensory room can provide a sense of calm and a place to re-center.”
Among the major stress factors for students are homesickness, social anxiety, financial burden, maintaining academic success, sensory input and handling roommate conflict, Mustafa says.
If the students using the rooms show improvement in their stress and anxiety levels, the hope is that the rooms can be placed in other buildings such as the University Center, Rutherford says. “If there is a definite impact, we want to expand the sensory rooms outside the residence halls into other buildings.
“At UTC, we’re taking on a real focus on mindfulness and student wellness, so we want to partner with the Center for Wellness and the Counseling Center and even the School of Counseling and Occupational Therapy to open these spaces for lab use so they can come in and practice their techniques with people,” Rutherford says.
To that end, in the process of setting up the sensory rooms, they reached out to Ashley Mason, assistant professor of occupational therapy, who has studied methods for calming and reducing stress. “Often occupational therapists work with people who have sensory issues such as hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity,” Mason says. “We designed this room to create an environment that is more or less something that the individual can control to help feel calmer. I’m really excited to see how that’s going to turn out.”
Entry to the rooms will be through a university swipe card, which will serve another purpose beyond making sure the rooms are used only by UTC students, faculty and staff. “Each person who swipes a card to enter the room will receive a survey a few days later to provide feedback. We’ll look at what’s the impact over the course of a few months, a semester, and years,” Rutherford says.