White Space and Sensory Rooms

The first page of the latest Abilitations catalog intrigued me. "White Space," presented as therapeutically beneficial in sensory rooms, was given a full two-page spread! What was this "white space"? How is it used by pediatric OTs, if at all, and what evidence do we have on which to base our utilization of this color in sensory spaces and on equipment?

After considerable searches on both our OT Search engine and the Web, I learned a few things. The concept of "white space" stems from the use of sensory rooms, the purpose of which is threefold: to provide relaxation and enjoyment by eliminating distraction, to increase creative sensory input and to facilitate communication and mobility for children with a wide range of disabilities. Although much research is focused on the effectiveness of sensory rooms themselves, published research on the effectiveness of white space, in particular, is scanty at best.

In 1997 the Journal of Intellectual Disability published research showing that a room full of lights, textures, sounds and smells could relax individuals with severe and profound intellectual disability. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology in 1998 also emphasized the benefits of multisensory environments; and in 1999, the famous White Top Research Unit of the University of Dundee, Scotland, focused on the wide range of clients (both children and adults) who benefit from multi sensory rooms.

Most of the research listed on our OT Search engine are published works of the mid to late '90s from the British Journal of Occupational Therapy (BJOT). Many of them concentrated on projects focusing on the effectiveness of Snoezelen on older individuals with dementia or challenging behaviors. Thompson and Pickney wrote articles in BJOT in September 1994 and 1998 entitled "Making Sense of Multi Sensory Rooms of People with Learning Disabilities" and "Exploring the Myths of Sensory Rooms" respectively. Although these articles came closer to my query, neither addressed the use of white space specifically. Calls to Abilitations for their evidence went unreturned.

Before these research studies focused on the effectiveness of sensory rooms themselves, most of the "evidence" for the use of white space in sensory rooms stemmed from studies promoting the Snoezelen approach to sensory stimulation. Snoezelen is a sensory stimulation concept developed in Holland in the mid nineties by Dutch psychologist Ad Verheual.

According to Special Child Information Archives, Dr. Verheual recorded his observations of reactions from people with disabilities to their environment. These observations led to experimentation with stimulation to all senses: tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory.

His experiments revolved around creating an environment that promoted relaxation while simultaneously facilitating stimulation. The result of this research was a book co-authored by Jan Hulsegge titled Snoezelen (stemming from Dutch words "sniff" and "doze"). As the concept caught on more and more, Snoezelen rooms developed in both Europe and the U.S.

Snoezoelen, sensory rooms or multisensory environments are designed to eliminate intellectual demands, decrease social interaction expectations or goal directed activities. Hence, the aura of complete relaxation. Within this cocoon of relaxation, intellectual and communicative attributes such as attention, memory, creativity and language are stimulated and self directed. Sensory spaces are usually enclosed within a black or white background. The use of white sheets, foil, blinds or black painted surfaces provides this enclosed atmosphere.

Why white specifically? Researchers focusing on the psychology of color agree on basic physical characteristics. White reflects light promoting a sense of coolness. White backgrounds tend to offer both emphasis of and sharp contrast with other objects. White makes space recede, enlarging the area visually. This is why a small area designated as a sensory space may be made larger by using a makeshift white background.

Psychologists also agree regarding subjectivity in the perception of color; however, universality of the use of colors across languages and cultures draws consensus among the experts. Among many cultures, white has been described as vast, endless, pure, spacious, relaxing and uplifting. Consequently, white is chosen as background for sensory spaces.

Within this white enclosure, stimulation of various types is contrasted against the background. Information Archives shares such effects as projected visual images, music, bubble columns, light patterns, star panels, string lights and revolving reflectors of varied shaped hung from the "ceiling" are tried. Caution for children with seizures is strongly emphasized. Other activities, commonly utilized by pediatric therapists, may take place in this sensory area.

Tactile experiences such as blowing bubbles, finger painting, games involving straws and cotton balls or creating with Play DohT, or simple craft materials such as feathers, felt, foil or sponges are placed in the room.

The Abilations catalog claims white space "is the basic foundation of any sensory room. White or the absence of color has been known to elicit a calming effect." At present little research readily available, confirms the specific use of white or black as foundational colors for sensory rooms.

Until our professional research produces evidence to this claim, it is wise for pediatric OTs to order equipment judiciously and proceed with the white space concept in sensory rooms cautiously.

Carolyn Cantu, MS, OTR, is currently a consultant and trainer for Austin Families Inc. of Austin, Texas.

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