Occupational Therapy and Multisensory Environments

Created as a method of sensory therapy, a multi-sensory environment is a dedicated, flexible space with specialized equipment designed to provide an immersive experience that promotes interaction and relaxation while also stimulating senses. This idea is built around the philosophy that everyone is affected by their environment — hence, you can positively engage your sensory system with the right combination of stimuli. Multi-sensory environments in occupational therapy are a key tool that can improve patient experiences and treatment outcomes alike!

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We can trace multi-sensory environments back to the late 1970’s when two Dutch therapists, Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul, successfully tried out a sensory tent at the DeHartenburg Institute, a center that houses and accommodates patients living with disabilities. Ultimately, these two therapists would coin the term “Snoezelen” which is derived from two Dutch verbs, “snuffelen” (to seek or explore) and “doezelen” (to relax).

After demonstrating its undeniable effectiveness, the Snoezelen technique soon spread to the rest of the world, beginning with Canada and the United States, where it’s now popularly known as multi-sensory environments. Today, you can find multi-sensory environments in schools, hospitals as well as community centers, along with therapy and rehabilitation practices.

Common Equipment In A Multi-Sensory Room

While most utilize white or pastel background colors to optimize light projection, multi-sensory rooms have varying appearances and equipment depending on the needs of the target client group. Some of the equipment you may find in a sensory room include: 

  • Projectors: help display detailed images, animated abstracts and any other sensory information
  • Bubble tubes: offer auditory, visual and tactile sensations
  • Music systems: provide stimulation while helping to manage the level of arousal
  • Fiber optics sprays: provide tactile and visual stimulation through long color-changing strands that the client can hold
  • Aromatherapy diffusers: fill the air with fragrance
  • Ball pools: support proprioceptive input
  • Waterbeds: can enhance feelings of calmness or provide stimulation
  • Positioning furniture: allow clients to change positions to enhance relaxation
  • Mirror ball and pin spotlight: sensory input for projecting moving shapes across the room
  • Switches: give clients control over the sensations in the room

Other Sensory Therapy Methods

While multi-sensory rooms are one treatment option for people with certain physical or mental disabilities, other sensory therapies can be a valuable part of a patient’s healthcare journey. For example, sensory gyms and sensory integration therapy are some other equally effective approaches.

Sensory Gyms

Based on the idea that we learn better by playing, sensory gyms feature various sensory equipment to encourage fun and exploration while also building motor skills, independence and communication. While people of all ages can visit a sensory gym, these settings most commonly focus on children. Often, a sensory gym helps with sensory issues — associated with Autism and ADHD — such as:

  • Sensitivity to loud noises
  • Avoidance of human touch
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Constantly bumping into things
  • Irritability with select textures

Sensory Integration Therapy

A relatively novel approach, this therapy targets people with a sensory processing disorder by improving reactivity to environmental stimuli, enabling them to become more functional at home, school or their workplace. The American Occupational Therapy Association describes several remediation therapies that can help, including:

  • Remedial intervention: using motor activities like massages alongside equipment such as swings
  • Accommodations and adaptations: wearing headphones or earplugs to reduce noise or showering with a textured sponge
  • Sensory diet programs: including individualized, supportive sensory strategies, physical activities and tangible items
  • Environmental modifications: such as noise machines and artwork to diminish sensory stimulation
  • Educational resources: for patients, family members, caregivers and administrators

Benefits Of Multi-sensory Environments in Occupational Therapy

Beyond the clear advantages of sensory stimulation activities for developmental and cognitive disorders, there are a multitude of other conditions that can benefit from sensory therapy as well.


Many people with dementia experience a loss of stimulation as the condition progresses. However, sensory therapies that focus on recalling positive memories or emotions may help patients express themselves, improve their mood, boost self-esteem and increase overall well-being.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Brain injuries may impact vital functions such as sensory perception, cognition, motor control and emotions. Although it may not seem like an obvious treatment method, one of the most effective clinical interventions in such cases is sensory stimulation therapy tailored to support cognitive rehabilitation.

Behavioral and Mental Health

The benefits of multi-sensory environments span far and wide, touching almost every condition that may require physical or mental rehabilitation. For instance, one client-centered study on adolescents and adults in a psychiatric unit established significant positive effects in 98% of participants. 

Among those involved in the study were people of varied age, sex, race, legal status and diagnosis. There were at least 26 unique psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, anxiety, substance abuse, schizoaffective, panic and adjustment disorders, which were all shown to respond positively to sensory therapies.

The Impact Of Occupational Therapy

An occupational therapist (OT) helps people improve performance, including cognitive ability and physical functioning. After a thorough evaluation, the OT may expose their patient to sensory stimulation repetitively while also gradually increasing the complexity of the tasks to help people improve their capabilities.

According to KellyAnn Roush, OT, sensory rooms are synonymous with occupational therapy. She points out that these environments provide endless opportunities for sensory-based input, social interactions and changes in alertness to a wide range of patients regardless of each person’s unique needs.

Here at Raintree, our digital healthcare solutions enable providers to spend more time treating patients that benefit from sensory therapy. Whether it’s optimizing operational workflows or streamlining patient experiences, our all-in-one software platform has the flexible functionality and powerful tools for the effective success of your practice.

From occupational therapy and applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to speech therapy, physical therapy or any form of pediatric therapy – learn more about our commitment to humanizing healthcare here.

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