DAMON — Wide smiles spread across the faces of two Damon ISD students as they lunged toward a ball pit, burying themselves beneath the colorful spheres after jumping in.
If the scene appeared to be more of a playful escape room than a classroom, that’s because it was meant to relieve stressors placed on students with autism and help them to refocus, said Damon ISD Superintendent David Hayward.
Focusing for several hours of the day can be tough for any student, but for those students with autism, it can cause significant interruptions in the students’ learning, Hayward said.
A state-funded Autistic Unit grant for a million dollars through the Greater Gulf Coast Cooperative was split between several Brazoria County school districts to fund special sensory spaces for children who have severe autism, Hayward said.
The grant was able to provide a new playground, complete with calming musical instruments and sound-making equipment, along with a soft ground surface.
It also provided the sensory room, Hayward said.
“Even though we’re a very small district, we still have three students with autism who require their own area,” Hayward said. “So, as you know, autism causes lots of sensory issues, and we want to stimulate those good senses.”
The funding provided a space where students can relax in a ball pit, use balancing items to center themselves, scoot across the room on a scooter, generally regroup, refocus and be more successful in their learning processes, said Darla Van Dyke, an autism unit teacher at Damon ISD.
“It’s great for our kids because those who can’t sit still for very long can go into the room, go through some of the things in there and then come back and learn,” Van Dyke said.
The biggest change in behavior educators have noticed since the room was implemented in August is students’ attention to tasks, Van Dyke said.
“Usually, when we first go in there the kids go straight to the balls and then after a few minutes, you’ll just see them calm,” Van Dyke said. “It’s almost like they have to calm themselves before we can do anything else.”
The break from a structured environment is an important part of learning for autistic students, Hayward said. The room has been a vital feature in supporting that goal, he said.
Because there are varying levels of autism, the different activities in the sensory room and playground allow the students to center themselves in space or find an escape that’s suited to their needs and comfort, Van Dyke said.
Between various motor skills and physical skills, there’s something for everyone, Van Dyke said.
The students visit the room and playground at least twice a day, and in doing so, are finding their way to a more successful and assuring school experience, Damon educators said.
“No matter what level of frustration they might be feeling, they know if the reward is coming. If they can get in this room and relax, they’ll calm down, finish their work and be successful,” Hayward said.