Becca McCabe, a neurodivergent doctoral student in mechanical engineering and president of the Student Neurodiversity Alliance at Cornell, looks through a nature book in the Learning Strategies Center's new sensory room on Dec. 8.

Stressed, overstimulated? New sensory room provides refuge

Alesandréa Rodriguez ’27 is sensitive to sound and movement. Even small noises can feel magnified or jumbled to her, and any movement around her is highly distracting. Working in public spaces like libraries is nearly impossible, not only because of her sensitivity to stimuli itself but also the anxiety that goes with it.

The Learning Strategies Center’s (LSC) new sensory room, a space where students can escape sensory overload, has provided Rodriguez with a unique refuge. On her first visit, she planned to stay only a few minutes. But she ended up there for hours.

Alesandréa Rodriguez ’27, an animal science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, uses materials in the Learning Strategies Center's sensory room to calm her sensitivities to sound and movement. 

“I can’t sit in a public space and work because my senses just kind of flare up,” said Rodriguez, an animal science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “[The sensory room] keeps you enclosed, like a tiny box, so it helps with my sight, and it’s quiet and private. I go in with my anxiety kind of heightened, but after I sit there for a few minutes, I come back down and then I can work.”

Located on the fourth floor of the Computing and Communications Center on the Ag Quad, the sensory room provides a space where students, especially those who identify as neurodivergent, can have greater control over their level of sensory input.

Converted from a conference room, the dimly lit space is divided into two areas. A sensory-seeking area has numerous fidget toys, lights that can be touched on and off, and textured objects such as smooth and rough rocks and a book of different materials to touch. A sensory-soothing area offers weighted lap blankets, noise-canceling headphones, and sunglasses. The room is open during business hours and operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with a maximum capacity of eight people.

“It really is about improving well-being, mental health and academic performance,” said Florencia Ardón, a study skills lecturer and the neurodivergent student support program manager with the LSC. “There is good research showing that taking a breather, and even being bored, so to speak, sparks creativity in your brain,” she said. “And that’s where we do more of the deep learning of really connecting different ideas. For higher level thinking or learning, this kind of space really presents all the environmental conditions that are beneficial.”

The sensory room fulfills a repeated request from students in the Neurodiversity @ Cornell community, Ardón said. Early in 2023, Ardón and Jennifer Bokaer-Smith, LSC’s senior associate director, started working with Racker, a regional organization that supports people with disabilities, to determine best practices for a sensory room and essential items to help students.

The room has a sensory-soothing area, with weighted lap blankets and noise-canceling headphones, and a sensory-seeking area, with fidget toys and textured objects.

The result is a space that students describe as calming, relaxing, soothing and essential.

“It sounded like something I’ve been dreaming about for the last three years, and when I went, it was everything I imagined it would be,” said Queen Guobadia ’24, a global development major in CALS whose sensitivity to light makes it difficult to concentrate for long periods. “I also just tend to overwork myself. I’m often tired. The sensory room does a wonderful job of functioning as a kind of rest stop in the middle of campus.”

The benefits extend to neurotypical students as well. Laura Hernandez Uso ’26, an environment and sustainability major in CALS, uses the room for stress relief.

“I’m just a stressed-out person because I’m doing a million things,” she said. “A lot of students like myself, we don’t give ourselves the time to de-stress and relax. Just having that designated space that I can go to, that I can fit into my schedule like a class – it’s incredibly helpful and important to have on campus.”

Becca McCabe, a neurodivergent doctoral student in mechanical engineering and president of the Student Neurodiversity Alliance at Cornell, said she and others in the community envision the room as a model for future sensory rooms throughout campus, which would provide an important resource, reduce stigmas and increase inclusion of neurodivergent members of the Cornell community.

“Now people who haven’t heard of a sensory room can go, check it out, and see that it’s a soothing place for everyone,” she said.

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Lindsey Knewstub