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A sense of color & sound

The Arc tries a new technique that allows the mentally disabled to get outside their controlled existence and experience sensory stimulation.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- Imagine that you depend on others to decide where you go, what you see, what you hear, touch and smell.

For people with certain mental disabilities, there is no imagining. That is everyday life. Theirs is an existence controlled to an unavoidable degree by others.

And, unlike those of us who can indulge our senses however we wish, sensory stimulation for the mentally disabled is often quite limited.

That's why The Arc Nature Coast, an agency that serves disabled people from its campus on Neff Lake Road east of Brooksville, is turning to Snoezelen for help.

Snoezelen (pronounced SNOOZE-a-lin) is a concept introduced in the late 1980s by two Dutch therapists that for the mentally disabled is part stimulation therapy, part recreation device and part relaxation technique.

The Arc devoted two rooms (now converted to one) and nearly $17,000 to Snoezelen. And for patrons -- people with autism, cerebral palsy, seizure disorders and varying degrees of mental retardation -- it is becoming a spa for the senses.

It is a windowless space illuminated by colors.

A mirrored disco ball hangs overhead and redirects a beam of alternating colored lights. A glowing bubble tube in one corner changes colors with the tap of a button on a simple control panel. A rectangular light screen in another corner pulses with color to the beat of whatever music is playing on the stereo, be it the sounds of a rain forest or the country wailings of Wynonna.

Dominating one wall is a projection of swirling colors that looks like something you might see under a microscope -- an ever-changing pool of colorful microorganisms.

There's a black light that makes white objects glow. There are plastic glowing neon tubes that hang in front of a mirror like some surreal window.

Draped over a bean bag mattress on the floor is a thick ponytail of fiber optic strands. Twinkling and changing colors, their only purpose is to be touched, handled and consumed by the eyes.

Floating through it all is the scent du jour -- jasmine, cedar wood or lemon, among others -- that emanates from a pair of aroma diffusers.

As a package, the whole place evokes psychedelia.

Ray Gomez, who leads The Arc's enrichment team, likens it to a light and stage show. But he believes it is more than a production. He and Arc instructor MaryAnn Strenad say visits to the Snoezelen room are helping calm the aggressive tendencies of some participants and reducing the self-abusive behavior of others.

For those who need a little stimulating, they say it helps make participants more aware of the world around them.

Their theory is that by stimulating underused senses and having staff members step back, the disabled participants can have a measure of freedom, find ways to express themselves and briefly exert a little self-determination.

"We don't force them to do anything they don't want to do. It's very relaxed," Gomez said. "We're just trying to raise the sensory experiences for customers who don't normally get that."

Gomez says the room seems to affect certain disabilities differently than others.

Marlon Kinney, a 23-year-old man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, emits loud, joyful howls when he slaps a button that changes the colors in the bubble tube.

Terry Neblett, a 28-year-old man who is blind and autistic, rocks to the sound of the music, which he is able to enhance by tapping a live microphone against his leg.

Mark Majewski, a 43-year-old man who is mentally retarded and shows some autistic tendencies, can sometimes be aggressive. But Strenad says that disappears and he calms down when he enters the Snoezelen room. "It's a pendulum swing," Strenad said.

Snoezelen, a grafting of the Dutch words for "to sniff out (explore)" and "to doze," has been popular in Europe for some time, but is just starting to catch on in America.

FlagHouse Inc., a New Jersey company that holds the license to distribute official Snoezelen products in North America, says there about 500 to 600 Snoezelen sites across the country, with about 10 in Florida.

Locally, about the only thing comparable is a sensory room at the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind on California Street south of Brooksville. There, a black room illuminated with bubble tubes and pinpoints of light helps certain visually impaired children make sense of what they see. It isn't based on the Snoezelen concept, but it's close.

For the most part, Snoezelen rooms are primarily found in hospitals, centers for the disabled and retirement communities, said Carrie Aspan, an account representative with FlagHouse.

Snoezelen has been given credit for many things: reducing fear and confusion for Alzheimer's patients and managing pain for mothers in labor, among them. Scientifically speaking, though, it's still largely unproved.

Researchers from the University of Dundee in Scotland looked at 19 studies on the effects of Snoezelen on "intellectual disabilities" and published their findings last year. While they found some evidence to show Snoezelen temporarily arouses the senses, the most reliable studies showed few or no benefits. In a few cases, some of the people who visited Snoezelen rooms became nauseous.

Where brief successes were seen, the Scottish scientists said it was not clear if the cause was Snoezelen or the fact that staffers who work with disabled people enjoyed the visits themselves and expected them to produce good things in those with whom they work.

In any case, brand-name Snoezelen equipment doesn't come cheap. The glowing bubble tubes can cost up to $1,600, the wall projectors $800 and the fiber optic strands up to $975. To afford its equipment, The Arc needed a $10,000 grant from the Hernando County Commission.

Gomez said The Arc plans to invite other organizations -- such as Alzheimer's groups or hospices -- to share its Snoezelen room. Already, profoundly handicapped students from West Hernando Middle School have paid a visit.

At the least, Gomez says, the room provides a little recreation to a segment of the population that has traditionally had few such opportunities.

"It does give them an opportunity to get out and experience life in a normal way -- with quality support," he said.

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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