A Multisensory Aquatic Environment for Individuals with Intellectual/developmental Disabilities: In This 12-Part Series, EP Explores the Benefits of Aquatics Therapy and Recreation for People with Special Needs

Article excerpt

What happens when you surround the fun and relaxing atmosphere of swimming pool with different types of lighting effects, reflective surfaces, lighted strands, and music? You have the unique aquatic multisensory environment (MSE) that has been created at the Patricia Hillman Miller Campus (PHMC) of Allegheny Valley School. This article describes the process of development and installation of an MSE aquatic environment and the many factors that one should consider for a successful result.

Allegheny Valley School (AVS) operates residential and therapeutic programs throughout Pennsylvania for children and adults with intellectual/ developmental disabilities. Most of these individuals have multiple physical disabilities, complex medical problems, and behavioral management needs. Services are provided to more than 900 individuals ranging in age from 10 to 90 in more than 120 facilities and programs in western, central, and eastern Pennsylvania to help them to function at their fullest potential and as independently as possible.

AVS installed its first MSE in 1999. Since then, additional MSEs were established at all program centers of AVS across the state of Pennsylvania, and new equipment was added to existing areas as funding allowed. A strong effort to carry the concept of providing appropriate sensory input throughout the day continues by incorporating multisensory equipment and sensory activities into the residential living areas. Many living areas of the group homes now have portable MSE units and planned sensory activities based on each person's person's sensory processing characteristics.


The use of multisensory environments (MSEs) has been increasing in the United States. An MSE provides a space where various types of sensory input can be provided in a controlled manner to meet specific objectives for a particular individual. In the multisensory environment, you may see waterbeds, rocking chairs, moving images projected on a wall, fiber optic lights, large lighted tubes with bubbling water, and vibrating mats. Music and aromatherapy can also be incorporated into an MSE. This focused attention on sensory experience can encourage positive responses from those who may have difficulty in traditional home, classroom, or clinical settings. These MSEs are used for therapeutic purposes, and evidence of their benefits for a variety of children and adults with different types of challenges is growing.

A multisensory environment is a dedicated space or room where the sensory environment can be manipulated to maximally benefit a particular individual. With an ever-widening variety of multisensory equipment to choose from, MSEs can be created virtually anywhere. MSEs have been shown to provide benefit to those with autism, dementia, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, behavior problems, psychiatric problems. MSEs have also been used to alleviate stress and mitigate pain.

In 2004, as AVS was continuing to increase its use of MSEs and incorporate sensory input throughout the day for its individuals, it was discovered that MSE equipment for use in pool areas was available and being installed primarily in the United Kingdom. The concept of adding multisensory equipment to a pool environment still remains new in the United States. AVS is not aware of any other multisensory pool environments in the U.S. Because the pool at PHMC is relatively small (16' x 32') with a limited number of windows and because of the complex disabilities of its residents, it provided an ideal space to pioneer this concept at AVS. AVS began to explore what would need to be considered to obtain and install MSE equipment with a company called TFH, whose U.S. headquarters are in the Pittsburgh area and with whom AVS had installed its other MSEs.

The Patricia Hillman Miller Campus is a residential facility that is home to 63 individuals with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities, many of whom also have associated sensory impairments and sensory processing issues. …


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