Sensory-friendly spaces play key role in improving health equity

The Autism Alliance of Michigan has been a leader in encouraging clinics to create safe spaces by including sensory rooms.

Health equity can be increased by creating sensory-safe places in pop-up clinics that provide vaccinations. 

Belinda Lee, Health and Wellness Lead for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, has played a key role building these safe spaces by helping local health departments incorporate sensory-friendly treatment rooms into their facilities. 

“A big passion of mine is making sure that we have rooms for people who may not be comfortable in the regular medical space so that they have a safe place,” says Lee, who began this work two years ago. 

John GrapThe Calhoun County Public Health Department transformed added two sensory rooms.

Lee has been partnering with Disability Rights Michigan and the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Institute at Wayne State University on expanding sensory rooms as part of its MVP (Most Valuable Provider) program, which encourages health professionals to provide services that are welcoming and accessible to all.  

Creating a sensory friendly room can be done by offering noise-canceling headsets, dimming lights, and providing staff training, she says. The Autism Alliance has made resources to create these spaces available to health departments. 

2 rooms in Calhoun County

In Calhoun County, two sensory rooms have been added to health department locations in Battle Creek and Albion. Funding from a state grant helped convert two traditional clinical exam rooms to be sensory friendly.

John GrapA calming bubble tube that changes colors is part of the sensory room at Calhoun County Public Health Department.

“The feel of our sensory rooms is much different than what you would be used to from a traditional exam room,” explains Hailey Black, family public health director for Calhoun County Public Health Department. “The lighting is softer.”

She adds that the first thing most people notice is the calming bubble tube, a tall tube filled with water that changes colors. Activity panels on the walls and other calming activities keep little hands busy. 

The larger sensory room at the health department in Battle Creek has a Vibro Acoustic Cloud Chair that can connect to a Bluetooth device to vibrate in time music, which can be calming for people on the spectrum.

“It's been very successful in making people feel comfortable. We get a lot of positive feedback,” Black says, noting that people who make appointments can request the sensory room. 

John GrapThe sensory rooms features activity panels on the wall.

The rooms have been particularly helpful with helping people with disabilities feel comfortable getting COVID vaccines and boosters.

“Our staff have special training, so a lot of the time they know who would be a great fit for the sensory room,” Black says. “Even kids without sensory processing disorders, people just in general get nervous about shots, so most people benefit from that space.” 

She praises Autism Alliance of Michigan for being a great partner on the project, not only providing technical assistance on creating the room but training the clinical team on autism.

“We have a better understanding of autism and sensory needs,” says Black. “It’s important that we adapt our practices.”

Dialing down the experience 

Safe spaces are vital for people with autism and others who are highly sensory-sensitive, Lee says.

“From the perspective of someone who has autism, you come into that space with lights glaring, and there are the smells. The place is totally unfamiliar to you or maybe not in your regular routine,” Lee says of most medical facilities. 

“A person who has sensory sensitivities, they can semi control their own personal environment, but then you've taken them out of their personal environment, out of their regular schedule, throwing them into this doctor's office where they’re getting a lot of sensory bombardment, and it's just overwhelming.”

John GrapArtwork featured in a sensory room at the Calhoun County Public Health Department.

A sensory room dials back everything so the experience isn’t overstimulating.

“The sensory rooms create a much calmer space. The lights can be dimmed or the individual can put on sunglasses. They can have something to fidget with one hand and make it through that immunization without the stress. They can sit on a beanbag chair and relax with a parent or caregiver,” Lee says.

Broader goals

Lee also works with the Luke Clinic in Detroit, which serves women and their families from the beginning of their pregnancy to a year after their delivery. The clinic provides follow-up care for the mother and her family.

In addition, she has partnered with the Native American community. 

“It’s been wonderful to work with them not only to enhance vaccinations, which was my starting point, but also to expand out into dental care as well,” Lee says. “We are focusing on the importance of the health aspect to make sure dental care is available for those who are Native American and particularly for those individuals who have autism and other disabilities. 

John GrapThe sensory room features a Vibro Acoustic Cloud Chair.

“If I had more funding, I would do a ton more sensory spaces because people are really open to making the world closer,” says Lee. “During sensory consultations, I give ideas.”

She's also interested in expanding these efforts to dental offices. As part of the Delta Dental Foundation's Centers for Inclusive Dentistry program, Lee participated in an immersive training designed to teach dentists and hygienists how to provide the best possible dental care to people with disabilities. She's on rotation at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry and recently did a training for University of Michigan dental students.

“Training is easier because it isn’t tied to funding,” Lee says. “More costly is creating a sensory room, because it requires funding.”

Everyone needs a break

Lee says the effort to include sensory spaces should go beyond just the health care setting.

 “It should be the general public, getting them to have a sensory friendly room. This inclusive space does more than serve people with disabilities. The majority of people benefit from having a more sensory-friendly space.” 

John GrapThe Calhoun County Public Health Department buildings in Battle Creek and Albion have sensory rooms.

Dr. Rhonda Dailey, M.D., is an assistant professor and health equity researcher at Wayne State University who focuses on chronic disease disparities and improving the quality of patient care.

One of the projects she’s working on is with the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Institute as the clinical lead for the Michigan Vaccination Partners (MVP) program

“We're involving not only the local health departments, but some clinical departments, with collecting disability information and also meeting with staff about disability training,” Dailey says. 

She was involved in helping to create a follow-up questionnaire for people who took the disability training and conducting a focus group to gather deeper feedback about the training.

“We've gotten a lot of great feedback on the questionnaire and in the focus group,” says Dailey. “They found the sensory rooms not only helpful for people with disabilities, but also just for regular people who may get anxious at the doctor's office or who need a break. Going to the doctor’s office can provoke anxiety, but having a quiet room just to calm down helps everyone.”

The purpose of the grant that funded the work was to focus on people with disabilities and make sure they're vaccinated along with their caregivers and their family members.

Dailey adds that the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced a lot of issues that have been buried for a while.

“We see that there are groups that have really been left out, and we need to approach this with a health-equity lens to make sure they're getting the care that they need, as well as their family members and caregivers.”

Mobile clinic extends services

One tool for increasing health equity has been the Wayne Health Mobile Unit at Wayne State University, which is used for mobile clinics

“I've seen that people who approach the vans like the fact that they could also get their COVID vaccinations. At the health fairs, they are standing in line to receive their vaccinations," Dailey says. “I've seen how people that are approaching the vans now and they liked the fact that they could get their COVID vaccinations. At the health fairs, they are standing in line to get their vaccinations.”

She adds that the attendees are getting flu and pneumonia vaccinations as well as blood pressure and blood sugar checks.

“People have taken advantage of the convenience of it all because they don’t need to make an appointment to go through a doctor's office, which may take a few months. I'm seeing firsthand how this convenience has made a difference,” Dailey says. 

“It was a win-win for both this grant and also the mobile health units because it brought more people to the table and the staff from these organizations now has training on treating people with disabilities,” Dailey says. “They received certificates and continuing education credits because of it, so that has been great.”

That exposure can be transformative for those working in the medical industry.

“It only takes one module or one training for them to think about things,” Dailey says. “We have to remember a good 25% of us in the United States have a disability, and each of us know someone in our family who has a disability, whether it's an intellectual disability, a physical disability, one caused by a work-related accident, or a temporary disability. We all know someone who would benefit from retrofitting an office or making sure that it is disability friendly.

“I'm happy to be part of opening people’s eyes and helping them to become more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities.”

Photos by John Grap.

Disability Inclusion is a series exploring the state of Michigan’s growing disability community. It is made possible through a partnership with Disability Rights Michigan.
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