BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) – Back in the 1980s, shopping malls did a brisk business selling things like aromatherapy devices, new-age music, recordings of rainforest sounds, beanbag chairs and the like.

The idea was to relieve stress by masking the din of hectic lives and replacing it with a bath of soothing stimulation.

Whether these things produced the desired result was – and still is – the subject of some debate.

But there is little question in the minds of the people who run Goodwill Industries of Western Connecticut’s Bridgeport headquarters that these calming devices, when properly used, have a profound effect on those with severe intellectual disabilities.

At Goodwill’s headquarters on Ocean Terrace, a “multi-sensory room” was assembled using many of the stress-relieving ideas that were popularized in the late 1970s and ’80s.

About the size of a small bedroom, the room is equipped with a clear plastic, 5-foot-tall column of illuminated bubbles, an aroma generator and a projector that throws a variety of soothing images on the wall.

The centerpiece of the room is a huge, plush, vibrating pillow, called a vibro-acoustic mattress.

“It’s plugged into a stereo system in which we play CDs. Right now we have Native American spiritual music,” said Erica Loso, program manager. “Our folks just love it. The room was designed around the vibro-acoustic mattress.”

There’s also a second beanbag chair that’s called a “transformation chair,” according to Judi Kibbe, director of vocational and rehabilitation services. On one wall in the darkened room, strange shapes are projected.

“A lot of our people are nonverbal,” Loso said. “They can’t communicate by talking. But you get them down in this chair, and it’s amazing the transformation that takes place.”

She said most people receiving treatment – they’re called “consumers” – lack the ability to interact with others. Typically, there would be one or two consumers with a staff member in the room at a time.

“It brings them down in an amazing way,” Kibbe said. “One individual we have, she gets so agitated that she tears her clothes off. We have to have someone with her just about all the time,” Loso said. “But you get her in here, and it’s amazing the transformation that takes place.”

The vast majority of Goodwill’s consumers are in various stages of training in which they learn how to hold down a job and to live on their own.

But the ones who use the sensory room are too intellectually challenged to be considered as candidates for a life of relative independence.

These individuals, enrolled in Goodwill’s Community Experience Program, need help with the most basic of tasks. About 20 individuals fall into this category.

“Most of my guys are on the lowest end of the intelligence scale,” Loso said.

“IQs in the 30 to 40 range. We have intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities and psychotic disabilities, and we also have people on the autism spectrum,” she said. “They’re uncommunicative to non-social. But you get them in here, then they’re in another zone.”

She said the room has been instrumental in significantly reducing the amount of screaming that the consumers engage in.

“They don’t have the ability to control themselves – to self modulate,” said Kibbe. “This brings them down in an amazing way.”

The room was opened in early August, so Kibbe and Loso are still learning how best to use the room, and are also seeing how clients react to it.

Other multi-sensory rooms might be established in Goodwill’s other facilities. Goodwill of Western Connecticut also operates facilities in Stamford, Brookfield and Waterbury.

“When they’re put into a situation where they can relax, they’re more willing to interact,” Loso said. “We have one women who does not want to interact with anyone at all. But she’s been able to come in here with another consumer. She’s never been able to do that.”

AP-ES-09-13-08 0005EDT

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