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Multi-sensory room at DAC

Becker County developmental achievement center client Bruce Stearns enjoys some time in the DAC's new multi-sensory room. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

When you first enter it, a multi-sensory room looks kind of boring — it’s all done in white at the Developmental Achievement Center in Detroit Lakes.

So much for first impressions: When it’s in full operation, the room is like a 10-year-old’s dream bedroom: Pillars of bubbling water in one corner change color on command, or in response to the music; a waterbed surrounded by cushy mats occupies one wall and a vibrating bed occupies another.

Unbreakable mirrors of various sizes and shapes are in three of the corners, weighted strings of LED lights are within easy reach (actually draped over) both beds, a strobe light and mirrored disco ball are ready to give the room a dance party atmosphere, and a projector with attachments can create a wide selection of picture shows, shapes and colors on the walls and ceiling — depending on the needs of the client.

It’s all about the needs of the client at the DAC, and the $50,000-plus multi-sensory room can calm an anxious person or fire up a withdrawn one.

That’s why the room starts out neutral, all in white, and is adjusted slowly according to the client’s “sensory diet,” according to job trainer Darcy Jahnke. She and program supervisor Cheryl Jahnke put the room through its paces Tuesday for a reporter and photographer.

(And yes, the Jahnkes are related. They are second cousins).

The multi-sensory room gives clients with cognitive impairments and other challenging conditions the opportunity to control all sorts of experiences.

These people rarely get to interact with the world the way most people take for granted:

“Limitations of movement, vision, hearing, cognitive ability, constrained space, behavioral difficulties, perception issues, pain, and other problems create obstacles to their enjoyment of life — multi-sensory environments provide  opportunities for bridging these barriers,” according to the Hidden Angel Foundation.

Along with the Bremer Foundation and Wells Fargo Bank, the Hidden Angel Foundation helped pay for the multi-sensory room at the DAC.

The Hidden Angel Foundation, which has helped fund more than 50 multi-sensory rooms, lists 19 benefits that come from using the room — ranging from increased concentration to improved coordination to a dramatic drop in stress levels.

“Time spent in a multi-sensory room has been shown to increase concentration, focus attention, improve alertness, awaken memories, and to improve mobilization, creativity, social relations and communications, and general awareness of the surrounding world.

“The varied optical, acoustic, olfactory and tactile stimuli help hyperactive individuals concentrate and focus better,” the foundation says.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes people are just having a bad day, or heading in that direction: The multi-sensory room gives stressed-out people the chance to relax and have fun as well.

The room opened in mid-July, and all but one client so far has enjoyed positive outcomes. “People who were agitated to begin with ended up happy, mellow, relaxed,” said Darcy.

The DAC serves 74 clients in its day program and another 30 in its residential program, Cheryl said.

“We’re still doing training on it,” she added. “We have a lot of clients, so we’re still finding out what people like.”

A staff member is in the room with the client the whole session, which generally lasts 20-30 minutes.

The staffer shows the client how the equipment works (like how to change colors in the bubble tubes), then pretty much leaves them unguided to enjoy and explore the environment.

“It’s their 20 or 30 minutes,” Darcy said.

It’s up to the staff person to gauge whether the client needs to be brought up or down, and that’s done slowly, and in stages, through the choice of music and the amount and type of visual stimulus. Colorful shapes projected on the wall will be rounded, with no sharp edges, to bring the mood down, for example.

The stages are reversed in the same order as the session ends.

The multi-sensory room could be useful for other populations, such as dementia patients at nursing homes or students with autism or other challenges, and the Jahnkes would like to find a way for them to use it as well.

In the future, the DAC would also like to add more warm fuzzies to the room — things like blankets, fluffy balls and other “things they can touch with their hands,” Cheryl said.