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First of its kind in the area, sensory room helps adults with autism

Naomi Mathsen, Columbia Place residential manager helps resident Nick Vejtasa in the facility's autism sensory room. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald2 / 4
A bubble tower, weighted stuffed animals and other tools are used in the room to help soothe and stimulate the senses of adults with autism. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald.3 / 4
A bubble tower, weighted stuffed animals and other tools are used in the room to help soothe and stimulate the senses of adults with autism. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald.4 / 4

Seemingly mesmerized, Nick Vejtasa, 24, stares into a "bubble tube," his face inches away from the four-foot, clear cylinder of streaming, bubbling water which slowly changes from blue to yellow to green to red.

"What color do you want to make it?" asks Naomi Mathsen, who's sitting nearby. "Blue?"

Vejtasa pushes the blue button on a round disk next to the column. The bubbles gradually turn bright blue.

"Look at the bubble column!" he says, without shifting his gaze.

Vejtasa becomes quieter, calmer and more still. He has stopped asking the question he's repeated the same way several times—a question that's more like a nervous tick than the need to know.

"Does that relax you?" Mathsen asks.

"Yeah," he says.

Vejtasa, who has autism spectrum disorder, lives at Columbia Place in south Grand Forks, where a new autism sensory room has been equipped with special massage seating, lighting and other objects designed to calm or stimulate.

Columbia Place, a division of Development Homes, Inc., a private, non-profit organization, is a residential facility for young adults with autism. Five men, ranging in age from 20 to 35, reside there; each lives in and maintains his own apartment. Support staff is available around the clock.

To the extent that it's equipped, and because it's housed in a residential facility, the autism sensory room is unique in this area, Mathsen said.

"I've been interested in sensory rooms for many years," she said. In December, she received money from Development Homes, Inc. (through funds raised at their annual golf tournament) to design "the dark room" which has been in use continually since early March. The room cost $14,000 to complete.

Therapy suited to autism

The room's design features are based on "Snoezelen multi-sensory environment therapy," which was developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s especially for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, dementia or brain injury.

Residents, who use the room one at a time, are in control of their experience, without needing verbal skills or to reach a specific outcome—making it a "failure-free" experience.

"Everything in the room is interactive," said Mathsen, who is the residential manager at Columbia Place. The person with autism can choose what to use, hold, watch or touch. The experience can enhance their understanding of cause-and-effect and concentration and memory skills.

In addition to the bubble tube, other items include a "vibrating snake," a four-foot, two-inch diameter tube that may be wrapped around the neck, arm, leg or stomach.

Weighted items, like a plush frog or turtle, may be held close or set on the body.

"It's amazing," said Mathsen. "Nick will go right to where he needs. He likes vibration ...

"It's amazing how our inner self, we know what we need."

Sometimes residents use items in combination—for example, a weighted item coupled with a vibrating item, she said. They "don't necessarily go to the same thing each time."

Residents use the room for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time. Some use it on a regular, structured basis.

"That's the optimal time," she said. "In that time, you'll have reached (the point) that it's going to affect you or not."

Good choices

With its subdued, dark green walls, the room features various light forms, including strings of tiny multi-colored lights which form a criss-cross pattern on the wall.

A screen, on which residents can project calming landscape images, covers another wall.

Fiberoptic sprays, consisting of dozens of unbreakable illuminated strands that glow and drape like hairs in a plastic-fiber ponytail, can be set on one's lap or fingered separately.

"Sometimes (residents) need something to play with with their hands," Mathsen said.

The walls are lined with uniform square frames of objects that can be manipulated for different experiences in touch, sight or hearing. For example, one square features wheels that rotate and on another is a series of individual small doors that can be opened and closed.

There are baseball-size, spikey rubber balls to squeeze or roll around in the hand.

"Nick likes weighted items, the vibrating snake and the pouf chair," Mathsen said. "He likes to lay and look and watch the bubbles" in the bubble tube.

"My favorite is the ceiling," she said. "It looks like a starry night sky."

A wide range of music—from classical Mozart to rock—is available to soothe or stimulate.

"We find a lot of times that drum music, with a steady beat, seems to be something a lot of people like," Mathsen said.

Residents can settle into a rocking chair that's hooked up to music or sink into the pouf chair to the point where, as malleable material fills in around them like a bean bag, they feel a certain pressure around the body.

"Pressure seems to be calming," Mathsen said. "People with sensory needs seem to like that feeling of tightness."

Rather than needing to be calmed, sometimes people with autism need to be energized.

"They can be lethargic; they need be stimulated," she said. Objects, lighting and music address that need as well.

Affects brain development

Autism spectrum disorder, a range of conditions that affect brain development, is characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties, according to the National Institutes of Health. Four out of five individuals who have ASD are male.

The word "spectrum" refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that children with ASD can have.

Some people are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.

"Nobody knows for sure why one child has autism and one doesn't," said Mathsen, noting that more research is being focused on the disorder because of its rapidly increasing prevalence.

Today, one in every 68 children has ASD, compared to one in every 250 in 2001, according to Talking About Curing Autism, a national non-profit organization.

In 2010, among 8-year-olds, the disorder affected one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls, the National Institute of Mental Health stated.

Symptoms, which are typically recognized within the first two years of life, cause impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Generally, people with autism have sensory issues, said Mathsen, who's worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for 15 years.

"They are super-sensitive" to certain stimuli such as light, sound, taste and touch, she said. "They may only eat certain foods because of the texture or taste of it."

In their brains, the tiniest slivers of stimuli are amplified or exaggerated, she said.

The faint hum of a fluorescent light "can be enough to disrupt their concentration—that's a sound most of us don't even notice."

Each person is unique

Autism is as unique as the individual it affects, Mathsen said, which is why it's important to build a relationship with each person in order to best understand how the disorder affects him or her.

"Each individual is so different," she said. "Some are sensitive to sound. For some, sounds don't bother them, but lights bother them."

That understanding gives her insight into what type of therapy in the autism sensory room each resident would benefit from.

Watching her at work, it's clear how much she cares about Columbia Place residents.

"I really enjoy working with these guys. They give me more than I could ever give them," she said. "They teach me more about myself every day.

"They have such compassion. They're so kind, so accepting of new staff, so willing to meet new people and not judge.

"They remind me that I want to be more like that in my life."