Creating a sensory room for students on the autism spectrum at The Academy at Forest View in Arlington Heights was a cause close to Kaitlyn Kropp’s heart.
Kropp, 17, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, said she knows all too well the struggles she and many of her classmates face during the school day, particularly when they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
“Sometimes we get sensory overloaded or we just can’t stay still,” said Kropp, a junior at the academy in Township High School District 214. “Instead of buying junk food, I thought to myself, ‘why can’t I buy something else that everyone would benefit from?'”
This month, as Autism Awareness Month celebrations across the world aim to educate people about a disorder that affects one out of 68 people, Kropp is sharing her story with hopes of inspiring other teens like herself to advocate for their community.
On a recent morning, she was delighted to be excused from class to give a visitor a quick tour of the sensory room that opened earlier this year, and which she has named, “Chillax,” shorthand for “chill-out and relax.”
After district administrators agreed to her project and she was awarded a $1,000 IDEA grant, Kropp said she researched sensory rooms, compiling a list of features she liked and which would be suitable for the space, a former storage room.
Determined to accommodate every sense but smell and taste, she sought out an array of materials that provide calming and tactile experiences and protect students with padded mats in a muted gray color on the walls.There’s a “bungee chair,” which Kropp described as feeling like “a warm hug,” and manipulative features like Play-Doh, stress balls and weighted blankets.
“A sensory room should not be too cool, but not too hot, we have a dimmer switch for the lights, and a music player so we can listen to something simple and soothing, like ocean sounds or white noise,” Kropp said.
When asked what kind of events or situations might trigger the need for a student to visit the sensory room, Kropp described a social scenario common to all teens, which she sums up as “too much drama.”
“When my friends fight, sometimes they want me to choose sides, but I’m more like Switzerland,” Kropp said. “It makes me feel like I want to cry, or to punch something. I just feel very, very overwhelmed.”
Kara Kendrick, director of The Academy at Forest View and Life Transition Program, said the sensory room project is being recognized with a prestigious Girl Scouts Gold Award. It will be presented to Kropp in June.
“We have never had a student earning a Gold Award, so this is a big, big deal for us, and we certainly wanted to support her,” Kendrick said. “Through Kaitlyn’s efforts, we were able to give this sensory space to our students, and she did all of the work.”
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Photo via Karen Ann Cullotta / Pioneer Press