‘Sensory room’ for children with autism unveiled at Vivint Smart Home Arena

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Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Kylen Hair, 4, of Orem plays on the bubble tube in the new sensory room at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — While his two sons happily played on computer tablets inside the Vivint Smart Home Arena’s newly unveiled “sensory room,” Steve Pratt tried his best to describe what day-to-day life is like for a child with autism.

“It’s like (they’re at) a rock concert all the time,” said Pratt, from Bluffdale.

“A lot of times they have hypersensitivity to loud sounds. Sometimes all they need is a five-minute break … to decompress a little bit.”

Thanks to the new sensory room, Pratt’s two sons and other children on the autism spectrum will have an opportunity to do just that when the sights and sounds inside the arena become too much, be it at a Utah Jazz game or other event.

The Pratts and other families with children on the autism spectrum were given a first look at the room during a private tour Wednesday, getting a chance to engage with several different displays designed to provide a release for any feeling of stimulus overload. They were also paid a visit from Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, who gave out high fives and shot hoops with the kids.

“Each component in the room is meant to either stimulate or calm a specific sense,” said Holly Mero-Bench, director of Vivint Gives Back, the philanthropic arm of the company.

Inside the room, children can play with weights, medicine balls or even a small trampoline. Computer tablets are available, as are enclosed cubicles where they can play with soft, rough or hard and smooth toys. Those items, as well as several additional displays throughout the room, are designed to engage children’s tactile, auditory and visual senses, or interact with their perceptions of movement or balance.

“Everything has its purpose. It’s not just a play room, it’s really meant to be a therapy room,” Mero-Bench said.

Combined, the various aspects of the room provide a critically important haven for parents who hope to best serve the needs of their child with autism while also feeling like they can take their families to loud or eventful public activities, she said.

“If everything overloads you … you may not even have an opportunity to go to a basketball game, because it is just too hard,” Mero-Bench said, a predicament the sensory room is intended to help solve.

The room will be fully available to the public beginning March 30. It is only the third such room available in NBA arenas, Mero-Bench said, with the others located where the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics play.

Vivint Gives Back has already built 54 sensory rooms in schools and homes across the world, including several in Utah, but this is the first time the organization has built one in such a large venue, she said.

“What better place to make an impact for those kids than at our (arena)?” Mero-Bench said.

The room was designed with the input of the Heritage Peers Academy, a Provo special needs school specifically for young people on the autism spectrum that also functions as a residential treatment center.

“A hallmark of kids on the spectrum is they struggle with overstimulation,” which can easily happen at something as intense as a basketball game, said George Ballew, clinical director of the academy. “(Most people’s) tolerance is only so much (stimulation, but) their tolerance window is way smaller.”

Ballew said overstimulation not only gets in the way of a child’s learning, but also their enjoyment.

“If you’re not calm and centered, nothing else matters,” Ballew said.

Mero-Bench said she hopes families will know that “when you need a place to come in and relax, this is the place.” TVs are also mounted on one of the walls so that parents don’t have to miss any game action while accompanying their child on an excursion to the room, she said.

“We’ve really put a lot of research into how everything comes together,” Mero-Bench said.

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Ballew praised both Vivint and the Jazz for taking initiative on a sensory room, saying “I think it goes a long way in showing their dedication to families.”

Pratt is a big believer in the virtues of sensory rooms, having had one installed recently by Vivint that includes monkey bars, a fire pole, a reading nook, a chalk wall and a climbing wall. He echoed Ballew, saying Vivint’s work on behalf of children with autism amounts to more than lip service or a philanthropic afterthought.

“They have some passion for this,” Pratt said.

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