Ice fishing house interior.jpg
April is Autism Awareness Month. The photo above shows the interior of a sensory space on wheels. Center photos show the structures set up at outdoor and indoor events. Bottom photo shows students setting up a structure at the Frontiers of Flight Museum. (Photos courtesy of Tina Fletcher)

Sensory spaces take on new shape — on wheels

Tina Fletcher (Occupational Therapy, Dallas) is an expert at creating multi-sensory environments for people on the autism spectrum, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the professor and her collaborators to look at things in a whole new way.

Fletcher serves on the Dallas Sensory Consortium, a group dedicated to improving access to community cultural arts and entertainment venues for visitors with autism and sensory challenges. Representatives from the Dallas Zoo, the Dallas Museum of Art, The Nasher Sculpture Center and others work together to ensure that programs for people with autism are consistent throughout Dallas

“We want to make sure these events go on throughout the year, not just in Autism Awareness Month,” Fletcher said.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the venues operate. Fletcher was able to use funds from a TWU Creative Arts and Humanities grant to explore how COVID-influenced sensory-friendly program modifications were impacting children with autism and their families.

“We were looking ahead to when things opened back up from COVID lockdowns,” she said. The group conducted a study of what families value or want in a sensory-friendly experience. The results of the study led researchers to develop sensory events in a new kind of way.

“We got an ice fishing house,” Fletcher said.

“You can get them on Amazon. I bet you didn’t know that,” she added with a laugh.

Fletcher purchased two more ice fishing houses with additional grant money. These structures can be used at events for children and their families to “come into the space and regain composure, calm down, or just take a breath, and then they can go back out and enjoy the event again,” she said.

The portable structures recently were used at a Dallas Zoo event that drew more than 3,000 people. Fletcher estimated that 10 to 20% of the children attending the event were on the autism spectrum.

“Our OT students went out in shifts and helped with the ice fishing houses, which we call ‘Sensory Spaces on Wheels,’” she said.

These sensory spaces typically include fiber optic lighting, a star projector that casts slow-moving images on the structure’s walls, a white noise machine, and a ventilation system. Before COVID-19 hit, weighted blankets provided soothing warmth. Now they’ve been replaced by weighted lap pads that are easy to clean.

“We are really learning from people with autism what they need to have in them and what they don’t,” Fletcher said. “Some have suggested furniture, but it has to be portable, and that’s a challenge.”

The “Sensory Spaces on Wheels” are attracting attention. Fletcher said the consortium has received inquiries from both the Texas Woman’s and University of North Texas libraries, My Possibilities, Family Day at the Dallas Museum of Art, and more. They collaborated with officials at the  Frontiers of Flight Museum on a grant from NASA to develop a sensory space at the museum and now are working with the Autism Treatment Center and another funding agency.

Fletcher said the point of these sensory spaces is that “autism shouldn’t always be thought of as a negative medical condition. Anyone can enjoy these structures.”


Story by Karen Garcia
Marketing & Communication