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Sensory room paying dividends for autism students

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Level Creek Elementary students Jack Winwood, 9, bounces on a large ball as his classmate Jacob Laco, 7, explores a string lit beanbag chair in the new sensory room made for the roughly 20 students at the school with autism in Suwanee on Wednesday. The students are "level three" meaning they have mild autism and are high functioning. The room features a body sock, bubbles in a glass tube, acoustic vibration corner, a beanbag chair that has strings of lights and a crash pit.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Level Creek Elementary students Jack Winwood, 9, bounces on a large ball as his classmate Jacob Laco, 7, explores a string lit beanbag chair in the new sensory room made for the roughly 20 students at the school with autism in Suwanee on Wednesday. The students are "level three" meaning they have mild autism and are high functioning. The room features a body sock, bubbles in a glass tube, acoustic vibration corner, a beanbag chair that has strings of lights and a crash pit.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Level Creek Elementary students Jack Winwood, 9, Baker Briggs, 9, center and Oscar Carvallo, 8, right, explore the crash pit in the new sensory room made for the roughly 20 students at the school with autism in the school in Suwanee on Wednesday. The students are "level three" meaning they have mild autism and are high functioning. The room features a body sock, bubbles in a glass tube, acoustic vibration corner, a beanbag chair that has strings of lights and a crash pit.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Level Creek Elementary student Jacob Laco, 7, is mesmerized by the bubble tube in the new sensory room made for the roughly 20 students at the school with autism in Suwanee on Wednesday. The students are "level three" meaning they have mild autism and are high functioning. The room features a body sock, bubbles in a glass tube, acoustic vibration corner, a beanbag chair that has strings of lights and a crash pit.

SUWANEE -- Three weeks into the school year, two teachers at Level Creek Elementary already see the benefits of the school's new sensory room for students with autism.

The room, which has instructional resources that have been obtained through grants and donations, is available to about 20 students, who are "level three" students, which means they have mild autism and are high functioning, teacher Theresa Wiist said. There are four levels of autism that range from severe to highest functioning.

Wiist said Gwinnett County Public Schools uses the levels to better teach each student, whereas other school districts may lump all autistic students into one group, which could range from mild to severe, or students who are able to take an assessment test with others who need to learn their phone number.

"We're blessed in Gwinnett to have those levels," Wiist said.

GCPS caps each autism class size to a maximum of 14 students per teacher, Wiist said.

The resources include a body sock, bubbles in a glass tube, acoustic vibration corner, a beanbag chair that has strings of lights and a crash pit. Those items cost about $10,000, with $3,000 of that coming from a grant from the North Gwinnett Schools Foundation in the spring. Principal Nancy Kiel said a top-of-the-line sensory room could cost about $80,000.

Wiist, who teaches third grade through fifth grade, works with Paige Brandon, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at Level Creek.

"If they need to get some energy out, they can just jump right into the crash pit. They can also, if they need to feel safe and snug, they can crawl underneath it," Brandon said. "It's dark under there and it helps to soothe and calm them. You can help get your energy out so you can regulate and get ready to work. The whole goal is to get into a range where you're ready to work."

The teachers allow a maximum of four students in the sensory room at a time, and they're allowed 10 minutes at a time. Wiist said they don't want the students to associate the room with a play area. The students need the room to be able to better focus on their work.

"Behavior-wise, getting the work done, it's a good motivating tool," she said. "We don't have a lot of data yet for it, but I know my kids are in heaven."

The need for the room varies for each student, but Wiist said they use it as part of a work-reward system.

"My students will work to earn this," she said. "If we see them melting down, we bring them in here before the melt down to try to get them back. If I have a student who has a lot of work and I want to motivate them to finish it, I'll be like, 'OK, if you can get through this math page, you can go in the sensory room.' And they will get through it because they love coming in here."