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MAKING SENSE: Allison Polesnak, a Slippery Rock University therapeutic recreation major from Monroeville, consults with Colleen Cooke, SRU associate professor of parks and recreation/environmental education. They collaborated on a therapeutic recreation research project involving a “Sensory Room.”

Student researchers stimulate senses

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The "Sensory Room" at the Nelson Therapeutic Activity Center in Monroeville is abuzz with new potential. Slippery Rock University therapeutic recreation majors recently helped the treatment facility implement the room, which provides health-related leisure services for individuals with intellectual disabilities, especially autism.

Students also researched the room's effectiveness. Students said their research showed the sensory room could improve clients' quality of life, increase relaxation and boost coordination. The room uses sensory objects for treatment such as textured balls, a recliner with massager, music, lights, a bubble machine and reflective wall pictures.

"Unlike anything the individuals have had before at the day program, this room holds unimaginable potential of improved functioning and wellness for those who are able to participate," said Allison Polesnak, an SRU student from Monroeville. "The experience was priceless for me as a scholar."

Polesnak and Jackie McCarthy, an SRU student from Pittsburgh, collaborated with Colleen Cooke, SRU associate professor of parks and recreation/environmental education, and Deborah Hutchins, SRU assistant professor of parks and recreation/environmental education, in conducting the research. Cooke and Hutchins head SRU's therapeutic recreation major, which focuses on preparing graduates to provide therapeutic recreation and leisure services as a means for maintaining health and wellness and to improve functioning.

The research concentrated on two individuals, one with cerebral palsy and one with autism. Students met with clients once a week during the summer to determine if the sensory room could help clients improve flexibility, range of motion, use of their non-dominant hand, balance, coordination and - most importantly - relax, Polesnak said.

"There were some aspects of the Sensory Room that were most definitely favorites: the music, bubble machine and the recliner," she said. "In the end, we did determine that the Sensory Room helped a client with relaxation, range of motion and use of the non-dominant hand. By the end of the study, the client was using his non-dominant hand when asked to without physical prompting."

Polesnak said clients became more relaxed after 10 to 20 minutes of relaxation treatment. "It is clear from our case study and observations that the Sensory Room is a positive and impactful addition to the Nelson Therapeutic Activity Center," she said.

She said the research project included many firsts for her as a student. "I enjoyed tracking progress, and it was truly exciting when improvement was evident," she said. Polesnak said she wants to find employment working with adolescents and young adults seeking to overcome drug and alcohol addictions and eating disorders.