NAUGATUCK — Preschooler Teddy Salazar runs across a matted floor under a silver disco ball toward a set of fiber optic light strands.
The overhead lights are off in this renovated former classroom at Central Avenue School. Neon ultra-violet light bounces off the walls, and bubbles of gooey gel move slowly up and down, up and down, in a tube that resembles a lava lamp.
This could pass for a makeshift disco nightclub. But there are no platform shoes here — no shoes of any kind — in what’s known as the multisensory room.
The room, first of its kind in Naugatuck public schools, is dedicated space where sensory stimulation can be controlled, either intensified or reduced. The room incorporates light effects, colors, sounds and sometimes music, including children’s songs, or nature or animal sounds.
The concept dates from the 1970s, when two men in the Netherlands, Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul, developed the idea while working with special needs children, according to the Christopher Douglas Hidden Angel Foundation, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading awareness about multisensory environments and their use for people with autism and cognitive impairments.
These days, such rooms benefit every age and are used in nurseries, schools, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, according to the foundation.
The rooms have become more common in public and private schools, said Linda Messbauer, who put the first multisensory room in the United States in New York City more than 30 years ago.
“Schools are trying to get away from punishment techniques like timeout,” said Messbauer, a founding member of the American Association of Multi-Sensory Environments who designs rooms for schools and facilities. “They are understanding that the individual has what we call a sensory diet and something that needs to be fed on a daily basis.”
In Naugatuck, all preschool students visit the room to gain a sense of calm that prepares them for the remainder of the school day, school staff say.
At Central Avenue, most students use the room a few times a week on a rotating basis for up to 25 minutes. Teachers bring small groups of students — typically about five to seven — into the room, usually with the help of occupational therapist Sarah Colella. She works at Naugatuck public schools and is behind the multisensory room effort.
Colella believes multisensory environments can work in any school environment. She is working with school administrators to consider them in all district schools. Hop Brook Elementary School will be next.
“People of all ages have benefited from multisensory environments,” she said. “Sometimes, teachers will come down here on their break because it’s a calming environment for them, too.”
Colella said she learned about these rooms in graduate school. They are being used in private schools in Trumbull and New Milford and at public schools in New Britain.
A national push to improve early childhood education has moved learning that used to happen in first and second grades earlier, into preschool, Colella said.
“Preschool these days is pretty demanding and this is another tool to help students achieve at the highest level possible,” she said.
The room cost about $8,000 and could cost more if more features are added. Most of the price went toward the items within the rooms, such as bubble towers and light fixtures, which they purchased through Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environments, a brand name that states its products reduce agitation and anxiety and engage and delight the user, stimulate reactions and encourage communication. The company helped with the setup in this room, which was a vacant former classroom.
Since it was implemented in the fall, preschool teachers have seen marked improvement in student listening skills and behavior after using the room, Colella said.
Limited research has been completed on the specific effects of multisensory environments, said Tara Glennon, a Quinnipiac University professor of occupational therapy.
She said an occupational therapist should be in the multisensory room to monitor the effects on children and then make a determination on how it is working or if the sensory input should be changed. For children who have a hard time calming down, any environment that is soothing or calming would be helpful, she said.
She said multisensory rooms are not a replacement for drugs that a child might be using to remain calm, such as medication for attention deficit disorder, but they could be “a nice adjunct to any other services the child is receiving.”
Messbauer, the expert on multisensory environments, said the rooms can simultaneously engage people’s senses and calm them down by touching different neurons, or pathways in the brain. She describes neurons as connecting pathways within the brain that tell the body how to react.
“If one neuron is supposed to connect pathways A to B to C, and we want to get focused but can’t because the neuron is jumping from A to F because you are under stress and that is blocking the pathway to B,” she said. “The multisensory environment experience changes the pathways in your brain and helps get them back in line.”
Teddy Salazar, the preschooler, came into the multisensory room at Central Avenue Preschool running around and talking loudly. Twenty minutes later, his voice had lowered, and he slowed down.
As he put on his sneakers and started heading toward his classroom, he looked at a teacher and smiled.
“That was fun,” he said.