Research has shown that looking at an aquarium can have calming effects on viewers, reducing heart rates and blood pressure, and improving mood. It stands to reason, therefore, that for students with autism, an aquarium might have similar soothing effects. It is also known that individuals with autism can benefit from spending time in a specially-equipped room which helps them manage sensory processing difficulties.

This was the rationale behind two innovative installations at the Morris-Union Jointure Commission’s Developmental Learning Center in New Providence.

The Morris-Union Jointure Commission (MUJC) is a regional collaborative public school district formed by 30 member school districts in the counties of Morris, Union, Essex, Somerset, and Hunterdon. The purpose of the MUJC is to develop and share programs and services among member districts so that economies and efficiencies are realized. The MUJC offers an extensive array of other programs and services that are utilized widely by both member and nonmember districts including professional development, transportation, related services, and transition, among others.

Among the services offered by the MUJC are its two Developmental Learning Centers (DLCs).

Initially, the DLCs were developed as comprehensive public school programs for students with autism from ages 3 – 21, and later added several classes for students with behavioral and multiple disabilities.

During the 2016 – 2017 school year, the MUJC Board of Education approved the reconfiguration of our student population at each DLC site according to age, so that each DLC location could focus in-depth on a more narrow developmental level.

As a result, students between the ages of 3 and 12 now attend the DLC–New Providence and students from the ages of 13 and 21 now attend the DLC–Warren. While the goals for our students at the DLC–Warren are functional life skills, job sampling, and social skills, the DLC–New Providence has a completely different focus. We reimagined the DLC–New Providence as a program exclusively for younger students and one of our primary goals became the reduction of our younger students’ anxiety through socially appropriate means.

A Wall of Fish That’s when we thought of the increasingly common practice in hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, senior citizen facilities, rehabilitation centers, and veterinarians’ offices of having aquariums with fish swimming in beautiful tanks. We envisioned our students, from the moment that they entered our DLC – New Providence, experiencing that same type of colorful and calming effect with a bright, big, and beautiful “wall of fish” in the entryway.
The more we researched aquariums, the more we became very excited about such a possibility! Our concept was galvanizing and energizing. Of course, implementation is not nearly as easy. The “wall of fish” came at a hefty price tag, and it is not an expense that is easily rationalized or absorbed by a board of education. It was clear that alternative sources of financial support needed to be tapped. We immediately approached the Autism Foundation of NJ, Inc., a foundation focused on individuals with autism, and made an impassioned plea for our “wall of fish.” The foundation was incredibly generous and promptly donated its financial support for the most spectacular 500-gallon saltwater aquarium. It measures 10 ft. x 2.5 ft. and is now located in the DLC – New Providence central foyer. (If any School Leader readers are interested in the actual construction process of converting a wall into a “wall of fish,” we are happy to share this information with you separately.)

Construction occurred over the summer of 2017 and, when the first day of school opened in September 2017, our hearts swelled as we saw students race to the aquarium and, with faces and hands glued to the glass, excitedly talk about their new fish friends.

Our students are now enraptured with watching the yellow, blue and kole tangs, scooter blenny, clownfish, blonde naso, anthius, green chromis, peppermint and blood shrimp, brittle starfish, snails, anemone, and pink and black sea urchins swim by and enjoying the live coral and constant movement of life in our ecosystem.

A short break of going to the aquarium is a motivator for some students to complete their tasks and remain focused and for other students to meet their behavioral expectancies. Likewise, any staff member who walks by is immediately mesmerized by the effect of our fish, and I have yet to see one person walk by where there is not an instant smile and a pause.

Our goal for the aquarium is not only to benefit our students but also to share it with students from other schools through field trips from neighboring school districts. Classes that visit and view our aquarium receive a lesson about our fish, enjoy the experience of feeding the fish, and then enter our STEM room immediately behind the aquarium to have a combined activity about aquarium life with our DLC – New Providence students. This is inclusion at its best.

Building a Sensory Room As our second focus in reconfiguring the DLC-New Providence into a school for younger students with autism, we began thinking about specialty rooms to further reduce anxiety in our students.

That started the process of developing a specialty room that could assist in reducing anxiety and producing calmness while, at the same time, increasing social and communication skills. Hospitals, clinics for treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease, colleges, and amusement parks are beginning to create rooms or spaces with names such as a “sensory room,” “sensory modulation room,” “sensory integration room,” and “Snoezelen Room.” These rooms are created for individuals to relax or for those who are experiencing a sensory meltdown, panic, or who are escalating toward a crisis situation. It became apparent to us that building a sensory specialty room would create a safe place for students to request before experiencing a meltdown, panic state, or displaying an aggressive outburst. While in the specialty area, a student could gain control thereby de-escalating and avoiding a crisis situation that may cause injury to themselves or an instructor.

Like all good ideas, buy-in from everyone was needed. We created a volunteer group of educators from all disciplinary areas, including speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and adaptive physical education, as well as our behavior specialists, to research, visit sites and look at possible equipment for the room. During meetings and written communication with parents, we discussed what a sensory room is, what it includes, and why we wanted to create one.

Our research led us to tour schools that currently had sensory rooms. It is important to emphasize that we were not looking to create a typical therapy room. We already have therapy rooms in our DLCs outfitted with therapy balls, mats, weighted vests, and a ball pit. Our new specialty room, a sensory room, would be for all students and would not be scheduled for individual or integrated therapy sessions. Schools that had created sensory rooms gave us the best information. Additionally, looking at pictures of sensory rooms online provided us with additional resources. After touring schools and researching online, we had an idea of how we wanted the room to be used, how it should look, and what materials to put in the room.

Creating our sensory room meant constructing the room. We made renovations to a small room, which was once part of a cafeteria, then sheetrock was installed over existing ceiling-to-floor glass windows, leaving the room without windows. Additional electrical outlets and switches were installed. Lights were placed on dimmers and on separate switches, allowing a variety of lighting scenarios, and the room was painted white.

To address the needs of all students, the room incorporated a variety of activities and equipment to target different senses. Senses addressed included vision, hearing, touch, vestibular (movement) and proprioception (position in space). The committee intentionally left out olfactory scents, due to allergies. No strobe lighting features were installed due to concern of seizure activity.

Our sensory room was outfitted with most equipment purchased through School Specialty and Yogibo. The equipment for the first year included a fiber optics tunnel, seat and wall covering, a film projector with a variety of nature CD scenes and sounds, a water tube and mirror, a variety of weighted beanbag animals, all from School Specialty, and beanbag seating with washable slipcovers from Yogibo.

A cleaning and maintenance plan was created which includes regular scheduled washings of the beanbag covers and beanbag animals, emptying and refilling of the bubble tube, and checking and installing batteries for remotes that make the equipment interactive.

The sensory room was greeted with great enthusiasm by students, teachers, and parents. A variety of activities were developed to incorporate social and learning skills such as identifying or requesting the color of the color tube or identifying and making requests about which weighted beanbag animal to hold while watching a nature film.

“Taking the Temperature of Your Behavior” There was also instruction to teach students to recognize when they are feeling increasingly anxious, experiencing stress or about to lose control of their behavior. We refer to this as “taking the temperature of your behavior” and making sure that it is in check. One way for a student to get behavior temperature back in check is to request or have a teacher suggest that it is time for a break in the sensory room. Not all students have learned self-monitoring of their behavior, but it is a goal for all students. One concern was that a student might make excessive requests to use the sensory room; however, that is a behavior that is gradually shaped into making an appropriate number of daily requests.

As with all things, motivation for the same activities and items fades over time. The Sensory Room Committee keeps the motivation and interest high by adding new items each year. New additions, since the opening of the sensory room last year, include a cloud- and fiber-optic rain shower and musical cause-and-effect squares. New activities and uses of the equipment continuously change to incorporate social and learning skills when appropriate. At other times, no requests are expected and students use the equipment on their own in order to calm down, relax and to then inform the instructor of when their behavior temperature has returned to a calm state. Our sensory room has made a huge difference in the lives of our students, not to mention our visitors who love to linger there!

While the sensory room is not an exorbitant expense, in our opinion, it has evoked an incredible change in how our students are developing self-regulation skills. Likewise, there are many cost efficient models of aquariums that will realize the mesmerizing attention of students as they gaze at fish…remember, it’s hard to become or stay angry when looking at fish! We invite School Leader readers to tour our DLC and see how we have effectively shaped our students’ reduction of anxiety through our aquarium and sensory room.

Dr. Janet Fike is superintendent, and Denise Smallacomb is assistant superintendent, of the Morris-Union Jointure Commission. Visit the MUJC website.