Sensory room provides outlet for special needs students

CALERA – The excitement was evident on the faces of Calera Intermediate students on Thursday, March 15, as they ran to check out the sensory room that was created for them by Isabella Powell, Miss Sylacauga 2018.

A ribbon cutting was held on March 15 to unveil the project to teachers, students and parents. The creation of the sensory room, which is a therapeutic space with a variety of equipment that provides students with special needs with personalized sensory input, is a part of Powell’s platform called Gimme-a-Break: Providing sensory rooms for children with special needs.

Sensory rooms help children with special needs calm and focus themselves so they can be better prepared for learning and interacting with others.

It’s a cause that is close to Powell’s heart because of her 9-year-old brother, David, who was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder Syndrome (RADS) at 6 years old. Powell’s parents adopted David when he was just seven months old, but by that age he had already lived in seven different foster homes.

Powell, a 21-year-old junior majoring in vocal performance with a minor in liberal arts at the University of Alabama, described RADS as the sister to autism. It is caused by a lack of attachment to any specific caregiver at an early age and results in an inability for the child to form normal, loving relationships with others.

“Most kids with RADS come from the foster care system,” Powell said. “It can begin in the womb as the result of a disconnect between the mother and child.”

With David, Powell said she and her parents found that sensory therapy was very effective. Powell said David went from making Ds and Fs in school to making A-B honor roll.

“Sensory therapy helps him release tension that he can’t verbally express,” Powell said. “I decided to incorporate sensory rooms into my platform after seeing how beneficial it was for my brother.”

Powell, with the help of her family, began working on the sensory room at Calera Intermediate in October 2017. The walls are painted a calming shade of light blue and the space includes light shields to dim the fluorescent lights that some people with special needs are sensitive to, a crash mat for students to jump on or crash into, rubber flooring, padding in each corner of the room, fidget toys, bouncing balls, a Jungle Jumparoo, gel beads, weighted blankets and much more.

Isabella’s father, Charles Powell, said the sensory room is meant to be both proactive and reactive.

“It can be a precursor to sitting in class,” he said. “It can help the students release some tension so that they are better able to learn and retain information. It can also be used after a meltdown to help calm the child.”

When a student enters the room, a timer on the wall will be set to 10-15 minutes. When the timer goes off the students line up at the door and go back to class. The goal is for students to use the room on a daily basis for 10-15 minutes to work out their extra energy or aggression.

Isabella Powell said the room cost a total of about $3,200. She held fundraisers and received donations to help fund the project.

“I’m so excited for my first sensory room and hopefully there’s more to come,” she said.

She hopes to raise enough money to complete two more sensory rooms, one at Pinecrest Elementary and another at Indian Valley Elementary, both located in Sylacauga.

“It’s a lifelong journey for me to help those with special needs,” she said. “I hope to continue with the work I’m doing even after my reign as Miss Sylacauga.”

Powell said she hopes to implement sensory rooms throughout the state. Powell is set to compete for the title of Miss Alabama this summer.