A safe space for autistic children

‘Sensory room’ is up and running at Maurice W. Downing Primary School


Students with special needs at Malverne’s Maurice W. Downing Primary School have a new way to develop their learning skills. The school, which houses students from kindergarten to second grade, developed a “sensory room” in September for students on the autism spectrum.

Downing School special education teacher Cristina DaCosta was inspired to create the room after a field trip to Sensory Beans in Wantagh last year. “I noticed that a lot of times, kids are really wired after a field trip, but with them [Sensory Beans] had quite the opposite effect,” DaCosta recalled. “They got all the sensory input they needed, and they were calm and were ready to do work.”

DaCosta added that since more students have been identified as on the spectrum in recent years, this would be a good opportunity to provide a space for them. She also said the rooms for the school’s occupational and physical therapist were small, so more space was needed.

DaCosta pitched the idea to the district’s special education director, Meredyth Martini; and Steven Gilhuley, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and educational services, shortly after she returned from maternity leave in December 2018. The new sensory room was once an old storage room packed with junk, but DaCosta said she was confident that the district could put the space to good use.

“I told Mr. Gilhuley this would be the perfect place for them to take a break and a place to blow off some steam,” DaCosta said. “Everyone was very receptive and easy to work with.”

DaCosta and fellow faculty members cleared out the room in a week, and moved forward with the project in April. District leaders and the Special Education PTA helped gather and donate supplies for the sensory room. The colorful room has a platform swing, a bolster swing, a foam pit and steamrollers — several rollers mounted in a frame — among other activities. Michele Floria, the school’s occupational therapist, explained that the platform swing provides vestibular input, centered on the sense of movement and balance, which helps children focus in the classroom. The bolster swing improves postural stability, for sitting at a desk. The foam pit, steamrollers and trampoline provide proprioceptive input, which helps children with body and spatial awareness.

“The [occupational therapy] and the [physical therapy] really utilize this room on a daily basis, based on their kids’ needs,” DaCosta said. “It’s a good place for us when they can’t get outside, for indoor recess. The first time our students came through the doors, their faces lit up. It made it all so worth it.”

Floria said that since the room opened, she has noticed increased interaction among students, and they are more focused in the classroom. “For a lot of children, sensory information can be very frightening,” she said. “This room allows them to explore sensory processing in a safe environment.

“It’s a win-win, because the students are excited to come down here, and at the same time, we’re working on their skills,” Floria added. “We’re already seeing improvement in fine motor, visual motor, and how they emote themselves, and they’re ready to learn when they leave.”

Downing School Principal Ed Tallon noted that elementary schools can be a busy place for students. But having a sensory room for those on the spectrum provides a focusing tool for them to clear their thoughts. “You see their excitement, their ability to transition in the classroom, taking turns, and it’s also therapeutic,” Tallon said. “It’s helping them with so many different motor skills that are essential for growth.”

DaCosta said that the school is looking into ways that students of all abilities might use the room.