A spinning disco ball dapples light on the walls of a darkened room. Travis, a fifteen-year-old with autism, walks toward an illuminated bubble tower. As the tube changes colors, Travis presses his face against it and glides his hands up and down the tube, transfixed by the moving bubbles. A few moments later, Travis darts to another corner of the room and lies down on a mattress to watch a film of a scuba diver.
Travis has just returned from a day at school and is visiting the Snoezelen (“snooze-e-lin”) room to relax. The multisensory therapy is designed to soothe as well as stimulate the senses of people with autism. St. Louis Center, a residence in Sylvan Township for fifty children and adults with developmental disabilities, has the only one of its kind in Michigan.
Snoezelen therapy originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s; the name comes from Dutch words for “sniff” (snuffelen) and “doze” (doezelen). In other places, it’s also used by people who have brain injuries, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or other impairments. Residents may choose from many activities, including listening to classical music, getting a therapeutic massage, entering a play space filled with plastic balls, and rolling around on soft exercise mats of different shapes.
“With autism, a child often lives in his own world,” says Joseph Rinaldo, an Italian Catholic priest and former director of the center. Rinaldo established the room in 2001 after learning about Snoezelen therapy during visits to Europe. “The Snoezelen room is a channel to reach these children,” he says. “It may relax them enough that staff can pick up on feelings that surface during or after a visit to the room.”
Nine of the twenty-five children at the center have some form of autism, says Rinaldo. Since the number of American children with autism is increasing, he hopes eventually to double the size of the room and add more sensory elements.