Blow Memorial Hall may seem like an area purely for learning and study, but if you meander through the hallways and classrooms, you will eventually find room 314: the Sensory Space of the College of William and Mary.
“It’s been an issue for a long time for many neurodivergent students that something like the meditation room in the student’s health center required a reservation,” Vice President of the Neurodiversity Student Group Zach Williams said. “For a lot of us, meltdowns that are brought on by sensory overload or emotional onsets are unpredictable, which made the meditation room inaccessible to us because we never know when we will need the space and reserve beforehand. We thus tried to find ways to reserve a room where no reservation is needed beforehand.”
With the efforts of the Neurodiversity Student Group and Associate Director of the Office of Community Engagement Elizabeth Miller, the Sensory Space was created over spring break of 2022.
“I got interested in learning about disability justice in general based on personal connections and programming we did around experiences of disability,” Miller said. “I saw many other colleges and universities have their own sensory spaces. We were also talking in the Office of Community Engagement about how we had some rooms that were not being used. I then reached out to the Neurodiversity Student Group and decided to apply for the IDEA Grant after receiving positive feedback from them.”
The Innovative Diversity Efforts Awards is a grant offered to faculty, staff, organizations, or individuals that take the initiative in advocating for student diversity and inclusion.
“The Office of Community Engagement worked alongside the student group to craft the application so we can make sure that they can decide the content in the space. Eventually, we submitted the application and got the grant, which allowed us to purchase many things that you can find in the room,” Miller said.
The Sensory Space has a variety of objects that aim to provide the students in the room with a sense of comfort.
“Outside the door, there are little signs that show the current availability of the Sensory Space,” Williams said.
Even if someone already occupies the room, it is able to be shared, with the occupant’s permission. The room also includes various reading materials about neurodivergence, papers and pencils, light shades, different seating options and more.
“We also have a set of weighted blanket and vest because that feeling of compression is very grounding, in addition to an array of stim toys if people wish to use it,” Williams said.
One of the most common problems that neurodivergent people may encounter is having difficulties grounding themselves.
“Oftentimes our mind and body move so fast that we need to alleviate this feeling of losing control by keeping our hands busy, or else it could lead to self-destructive habits,” Williams said.
Stim toys are effective tools to inhibit such problems and help the students with concentration.
“I carry several stim toys myself every day,” Williams said. “I would hold them under the desk during class, which helps me to calm down my body and concentrate, something that can only happen when I do not have to control my body to stay still mindfully.”
However, struggling with concentration and grounding are but just two problems that some neurodivergent students will face.
“Neurodivergence is chiefly represented by autism, ADHD, Rett syndrome, schizoaffective disorder and more that makes a person’s neurological function different from what the society perceives as normal,” Williams said. “My experience does not fit in the entirety of the neurodivergent student body, hence the name ‘neurodivergence’ because there are many differences between different people who identify with neurodivergence.”
Identifying with neurodivergence means struggling with many things that most people take for granted.
“Most people can have a conversation fairly naturally, which is not the case for many neurodivergent people. We have to carry out many things that other people do instinctively deliberately,” Williams said.
For Williams, it is tough for him to stay still in a classroom or maintain a socially acceptable manner. The same goes for many people that Williams knows.
“I want people to realize that we are nevertheless talented in different ways despite the challenges we face,” Williams said; “part of the neurodivergence initiative is that other people focusing on what we need and what we can or cannot do is not as important as us just being people that are in essence the same as everyone else. We want people to realize that even for neurodivergent people, the majority is not the most important. For example, there are also marginalized groups who have a very different need from myself.”
Because of this, the Sensory Space is completely inclusive.
“The use of the Sensory Space is not limited to only neurodivergent people; anyone who feels the need to use the resources the Sensory Space provides is free to do so,” Williams said.
Despite its short history, the Sensory Space has already become a vital part of some students’ lives.
“The Sensory Space in Blow is a really exciting addition for neurodivergent students at William and Mary,”President of the Neurodiversity Student Group Caitlin McCaslin said. “Personally, I have really benefited from using the Sensory Space to regulate my senses before a long day of classes and activities, helping to prevent sensory overload later.”
Although the Sensory Space gives solace to many people who want a space to regulate their body and mind, some think the school should do more to support neurodivergent students.
“The school could do a lot more,” Williams said. “The Sensory Space is only a start. There is still a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done.”
One example that Williams pointed out is the accommodations in dorms.
“A lot of dorm rooms still lack facilities such as air conditioning and elevators, which are general disability accommodations that help neurodivergent students or students of disability in general,” Williams said.
“Resources for sensory regulation are essential for neurodivergent students, but they aren’t always easily accessible. Even if a neurodivergent student had the funds, they could not really convert their dorm into a sensory space if they had a roommate. Sometimes your roommate needs the lights on, but you’re getting overwhelmed and need the lights off,” McCaslin said.
In addition, Williams mentioned that events such as Orientation are also in need of changing as they can cause sensory overload and overwhelm some neurodiveregent students.
The COVID-19 pandemic posed special challenges to neurodivergent students on campus.
“Coping with COVID was difficult for me because everything changed at once,” McCaslin said. “I had just gotten used to what life was like on campus. My first semester in the fall had been really rough because adjusting from high school to college was overwhelming.”
Williams feels the need to increase awareness about neurodivergence in those challenging times.
“Neurodivergent people, including myself, find solace in routine, which completely breaks apart when COVID hits,” Williams said.
However, some people benefited from a period of reflection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people I know only realized that they could be neurodivergent during the pandemic. When the pressure of constant social interaction and day-to-day exhaustion of completing daily tasks all fade away, they start to feel comfortable, which makes them question why they were never comfortable before. Such epiphany served as a wake-up call for many people who start to find spending time alone generates positive outcomes,” Williams said.