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Roughly 20% of the population is neurodivergent, meaning that over 6,000 individuals in Halifax County, Virginia, have a neurodivergent condition. These children and adults had no space to call their own, tailored to their specific needs. This is where we stepped in and decided to create a room where they could get away, a quiet space that was just for them.

The number one question our staff at the South Boston Public Library have been asked since February 2024 is, “What is a sensory room?” The answer tends to lead to a lengthy discussion of what people with autism, ADHD, and other neurodivergent conditions need to cope with in the everyday world. A sensory room is a safe place, typically with low lighting, soft seats, and a plethora of sensory items to use and play with. But why is such a safe space needed?

Living in a rural area, it’s not an uncommon question, and the answer is multi-faceted. For people who are neurotypical (who don’t have autism, ADHD, etc.), a sensory space sounds like something New Age and perhaps a little redundant. However, sensory spaces in rural areas such as ours are extra important because they provide a place to simply exist that is calming when a neurodivergent person is overwhelmed. They provide a place for therapists to work with their patients.

Often for those in the neurodivergent community, things such as bright lights, crowds, and lots of noise become overstimulating and can lead to them becoming upset, angry, withdrawn, and overwhelmed. So, to have a space that has low lights, is quiet, and doesn’t have tons of people around makes it easier to communicate, play without disturbances, or simply provide a feeling of calm instead of calamity. Having a room readily available outside the home is also a relief to the families and caretakers of neurodivergent people because it is specially made just for them.

For us at the South Boston Public Library, we saw the need for such a space because the nearest sensory rooms were an hour or more away in any direction. There was nothing here for our own community, and we sought to change that. The process was years long from conception to execution. It wasn’t something that we could tackle with our limited library budget, but it was something too necessary to ignore. Eventually, in 2023, our local Sentara hospital opened a grant to be awarded to one institution locally to fulfill a special project or need in the area. We toured the sensory rooms at the Durham County Library in Durham, North Carolina, and they were integral to the process by giving us not only a tour but also offering great advice along the way.

Then we created a committee, planned out our project, and submitted it. Months later we were informed we had won the grant and our long dream of a sensory space could now become a reality!

We immediately we went into action prepping the space for renovation. The room had originally been a storage space since COVID began, so clearing it out and prepping for painting was the first step.

Afterwards we painted the room, installed an extra wall where there was previously only railing, and filled it with tools and toys that would provide a sensory experience. Items include: a blackout tent, bean bag chairs, wobble stools and boards, noise-cancelling headphones, light boards, and weighted stuffed animals.

Once completed, we had a soft opening at the beginning of February 2024, with a grand opening on Valentine’s Day. The sensory space was well received by everyone, and immediately we began to have people reserving the room. Presently we have standing appointments with several of the behavioral health facilitators and mentors.

Interest and use continue to climb as word gets around and more and more people understand what a sensory room really is: a space for neurodivergent people to just be themselves.

-Jenna Austin, Branch Manager – South Boston Public Library, Halifax County-South Boston Public Library

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