November 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Dancing in the dark

By Benjamin Law
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

From the outside, the Snoezelen Room at the Gold Coast’s Mudgeeraba Special School (MSS) doesn’t look like much. The room’s padlocked entrance is almost creepy, resembling a fire exit that’s been bolted up. As she fiddles with the large master locks, head of curriculum Nicole Belous explains this actually used to be a garage. I think to myself that if I were a kid being led into this room, I’d probably be freaking out right now.

Inside, however, the Snoezelen Room is an impressive cross between suburban video game arcade and interactive science centre. On the walls are murals of friendly characters from A Bug’s Life and outer-space scenes with rockets. When Nicole turns off the overhead lights and flicks another switch, UV lights and fibre-optic cables glow in the dark like a vivid hallucination. The entire place looks like a basement rave party, minus the bad outfits and ecstasy.

“A lot of our students are hypersensitive to touch, sound and smell,” Nicole says, “so this is an opportunity to learn how to engage with the world.” Developed by the Dutch in the 1970s, Snoezelen Rooms were originally designed as multi-sensory environments to help autistic kids interact with their environment. But, because the kids at MSS have a variety of disabilities, they use the Snoezelen Room in different ways. Some come to relax after a difficult morning, while others – especially those with visual impairments – come with teachers for lessons to familiarise them with objects that dangle from the ceiling, attached to furry elastic cords.

Nicole shows me the dozens of switches that operate the room’s equipment: aroma diffuser, mirror, touch panel, musical wheels, bubbles, projectors, musical floor. The musical floor looks like the one John Travolta danced on in Saturday Night Fever, except padded like a gymnastics mat. It worked well for about six years, Nicole explains, before the kids wore it out and the staff decided to retire its functions.

The MSS staff also had to permanently dismantle the giant bubble machine, despite it being one of their most popular pieces of equipment. “Maybe too popular?” I ask Nicole. She laughs, nodding. A long, cylindrical tube of liquid that produced glowing blobs in different colours, the machine responded when kids pressed certain buttons. “But,” says Nicole, “they’d also shake the perspex tube and fluid would leak everywhere.”

Around 10.00 am, Mudgeeraba’s ‘Pink Class’ of six kids files into the darkened room. With Enya-ish windpipe music playing in the background, two kids happily squirm on the musical floor, while another girl buries herself in a mirrored room that has blue fibre-optic cords suspended from its ceiling. Watching her chew on the cords looking completely serene, I join her in the corner. The effect of this area is both calming and disorienting. Staring at endless reflections of ourselves, bathed in blue light, it feels like we’re in an outtake from Avatar.

A ten-year-old boy leads me to one of the tactile walls: wooden constructions where you drop balls into a slot at the top, before watching them slide down complicated tunnels to pop out at the bottom. We watch as a teacher’s aide waves a glowing blanket over another kid’s head; it’s like an airborne jellyfish, and both find it totally hypnotic.

Snoezelen has become ubiquitous over the past few decades. In the UK, Snoezelen is a registered trademark and its parent company, Rompa, sells equipment to customers in more than 40 countries. Academics and health workers hold regular international conferences dedicated to the concept. Snoezelen has also extended its reach far beyond children with intellectual disabilities. The kids at MSS might have nothing in common with, say, elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s those two groups – kids with disabilities and people with dementia – who are often treated with exactly the same approach: Snoezelen.

Dr Michael Bauer, an Australian specialist in gerontology, is in the middle of a two-year study examining how Snoezelen is used in aged-care facilities in Victoria. Nearly all of the residential homes he’s surveyed so far incorporate Snoezelen somehow, either through a dedicated room or by carting multi-sensory equipment to residents on a trolley. “Not many facilities actually refer to it as Snoezelen,” he says, “but if you’re looking at it more broadly and talking about multi-sensory therapies, then I would say probably around 99% of facilities use [it].”

Monitoring how well Snoezelen ‘works’ is difficult. Improved behaviour, mood and levels of communication can be gauged by observation, but it’s a vague science. In dementia care, Dr Bauer says there are clear short-term improvements in behaviour. “But a systematic review, or meta-analysis of all the research, nonetheless still concludes there’s really no strong evidence that shows Snoezelen is actually effective for dementia,” he says. “Everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon and adopted a lot of these approaches, but we don’t really know a great deal about whether they work, and – probably more importantly – whether there are any adverse effects.”

Regis Canning Lodge is a high-care elderly residential home in Caboolture, Queensland, currently renovating its Snoezelen room. Assistant manager Helen Williams tells me Snoezelen rooms don’t have to resemble space-age science centres; sure, equipment can be expensive (bubble machines) but it can be extremely cheap too (bubble wrap). Right now, Canning Lodge’s proposed Snoezelen room is a dark, windowless 4 x 5 metre room: basically a large storage closet. I feel a little bit claustrophobic inside, and Helen says that is actually something they need to be careful of in the design: that residents don’t feel locked inside a cupboard. I understand how that could be a problem.

There is already an image projector installed that lights up the room with colours, giving it a late-’60s psychedelic Nimbin vibe. “How much of all this is about inducing a trance?” I ask. Helen smiles. “I suppose it can be perceived that way,” she says. “But for us, it’s to have people leave here feeling happy. With dementia, when you’re upset, you don’t know why. And that’s frustrating. If you’re happy, you might not know why you’re happy, but you know you’re enjoying that feeling of happiness.”

Back at Mudgeeraba Special School’s Snoezelen Room, sitting on the musical floor surrounded by chuckling kids – some cocooned in blankets that light up like glow-worms – I think I get what Helen’s saying.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.

@mrbenjaminlaw

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