Sensory deprivation rooms can be a 'lifesaver', say parents of autistic children

Hamilton North School principal Tony Kane said sensory rooms are important for children with autism.

Hamilton North School principal Tony Kane said sensory rooms are important for children with autism.

A school principal is warning against portraying all separation areas as being bad for autistic children.  

Seclusion rooms are to be banned after an investigation found two primary schools had disciplined autistic children by locking them in seclusion rooms, some for hours at a time.

The Ministry of Education said it was in the process of "talking to schools" individually about their policy towards seclusion rooms.

Hamilton North School principal Tony Kane said there was a stark difference between a sensory deprivation room - which his school has - and seclusion.

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Pupils at the school have an intellectual or physical disability, or both, and many are at the most severe end of the spectrum.

Kane said sensory deprivation rooms are essential for children with autism.

"The latest (coverage) has put the rooms all in one little basket because, unfortunately, one school has used it wrongly," he said.

"We do have sensory rooms, they don't have locked doors and usually someone goes with the student to talk to them calmly and help settle them down. You don't ever leave a student alone.

"The room is a bit darker and (students) can go in and get calm because the bright lights and everything set them off."

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Some parents believe the rooms are "lifesavers" for their children. 

One Hamilton mother, who asked not to be named, has a teenage son who is autistic and non-verbal.

"When he feels stressed he'll take himself off to the [sensory] rooms and calm down, he'll stay in there for an hour or so and play with the lights," she said.

"He's also a big boy so it's not only a relief for his teacher, it's a relief for me knowing he's not lashing out at his friends or hurting himself.

"Since all the stories about seclusion rooms have come up, my friends have asked if my son uses those rooms - I feel judged. If they knew how much of lifesaver the rooms are for us, they wouldn't judge."

The use of seclusion has been condemned by Education Minister Hekia Parata, who plans to make the practice illegal. 

The majority of schools had good practices in place for managing challenging behaviour, Parata said, adding that dealing with such behaviour could be "very difficult".

In a written statement from the ministry, the head of special education David Wales said he was in the process of "talking to schools across the country about any use of seclusion practices" and that process is not complete.

One of the schools that practiced seclusion was Wellington's Miramar Central School where two autistic boys, aged 6 and 11, were locked in a small, dark room on separate occasions.

The 11-year-old had been in the 'time-out' room 13 times in nine days, and 10 other children had been shut in there since 2015.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said sensory rooms are used to avoid sensory overload, which can lead to stress, anxiety or meltdowns for children with autism.

"We definitely do not support seclusion. That practice had to be stopped and I'm very happy about that," Dougan said.

"There still has to be a place for children [with sensory disorders] to go to and calm down and we support the use of sensory rooms.

"There needs to be an understanding that the rooms are not used as a punishment or form of discipline. Often children will go on their own but sometimes it's a teacher that takes them in there to relax."

Kane received a letter from the ministry last week - a guide on behaviour management.

"I acknowledge there will be situations where students may need to be removed from the classroom, however there is no situation where it is acceptable for seclusion to be used and any schools using this practice should stop immediately. It is also important to note that seclusion and time-out is not the same thing," the letter read. 

"About ten years ago, many schools had those rooms but most of them have done away with them and don't have them at all," Kane said.

"I think we've progressed a long way since the old days and [the letter from] the ministry was a reminder to schools of the difference between time-out and seclusion. 

"Our room here has a water feature which is really soothing for our students. It's got a bed and students can lie down, it's not fully set up but there's room enough there for students with wheelchairs to go in to. It's quite soothing for them."

 - Sunday Star Times


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