Our senses. They provide us with constant input about the world around us. For a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, however, the message between the brain and the body doesn’t work quite the same as the rest of the population. Thankfully, there are some easy changes you can make to help your sensory-sensitive children – and they will benefit all the children in your classroom!
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is a neurological condition. There has been some debate about the veracity of it existing as a diagnosis, or if it is merely a symptom of a different condition such as Autism or ADHD. However, recent studies have shown physical differences in the brains of children with sensory disorders.
What is it like to have Sensory Processing Disorder?
The brain of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder doesn’t always get the input the way a neurotypical (NT) child would. Picture a busy highway. The cars are flowing in two directions, with no issues, moving in a streamlined fashion. When touching something hot, for example, most people instantly jerk their hand back. The message “OW HOT!” travels through the nerves at lightning speed, up to the brain, which immediately processes the information, and then the brain sends back a message “MOVE AWAY!” instantly down the arm. This reaction happens quicker than you can think about it. In a child with SPD, however, there are traffic jams along the way and detours. So they touch the hot item… and then the message never arrives at the brain, or it gets detoured or scrambled. They don’t get the message that the pot is hot, so they burn their hand. And that’s just for one message. This happens time and time again, with all the different messages constantly coming into the body.
Another aspect is the “sensory volume” factor. In many kids with SPD, they have difficulty interpreting sensory information because it’s as if every sense is turned up to max volume simultaneously. Imagine if you were blindfolded, spun around in circles, then put in the middle of a busy intersection with horns blaring, radios blasting, a garbage dumpster smelling, a restaurant sending out smells of food cooking, bright lights flashing, and then someone handed you a calculus problem and told you “Now solve this and don’t mess up and write neatly.” You’d probably struggle with that. That’s how some children with Sensory Processing Disorder feel ALL THE TIME.
The Three Main Types of Sensory Processing Disorder
Children with sensory processing issues can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes sensory issues tag along with other diagnoses. Children with ADHD and Autism are especially prone to sensory issues, for example, but sometimes it is a standalone diagnosis as well. Living with SPD can even cause other diagnoses later on, such as anxiety disorders, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This stems from a need to control the environment to alleviate the sensory onslaught.
In a nutshell, SPD can come in one of three types. There is the seeker – this is the child that is constantly seeking sensory feedback. They often will be fidgeting or moving, bouncing off walls, climbing the shelves, making noises to just make noise, and spreading the paint and cooking activities all over their face or the table. Then there is the avoider – the child that will not fingerpaint, is extremely picky about their food, panics over getting dirty on the playground, hides when the vacuum comes out, and often refuses to engage in activities. Finally, there is the combination seeker/avoider. This makes up the majority of children with SPD. Just as the name suggests, they have tendencies from both categories. (Please note, these traits are only examples, not an exhaustive list or a diagnostic tool.)
The Hidden Senses
Most people learn that there are five senses. However, there are more! Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch and Smell are the big ones, but Proprioception and Vestibular are there too! Proprioception is being able to sense the body in relation to other things. For example, intuitively knowing how far away the corner of the wall is so that one does not smack into it while walking by. Vestibular sense is the sense of balance. When it is working, a person can walk across the room without feeling dizzy or falling. People with an impaired vestibular system often stumble and appear dizzy. It is similar to a person being impaired after having too much alcohol, an ear infection, or spun around in circles – that’s what it is like all the time for someone with an impaired vestibular system. These two systems work together so that when someone with normal function in those senses tips too far back in their chair, the vestibular sense alerts, “FALLING!” and the proprioceptive sense takes action to correct it.
Helping a child with Sensory Processing Disorder
Now that we’ve covered a bit of what Sensory Processing Disorder is, it’s time to discuss what you can do to make your classroom more sensory-friendly. And believe it or not, most children will find these changes helpful – not just the children with sensory issues.
Typical preschool classrooms are awash with bright colors. A child with SPD will find this overwhelming. Things you can do to help:
- Choose natural colors such as blues, greens, and browns, instead of bright primary colors There have been studies that this is actually better for most children, and especially so for any with any neurodiverse diagnosis, like Autism or ADHD.
- Limit artwork to bulletin boards or defined areas. Leave a few blank spaces on your walls so children with visual overstimulation can find a place to rest their eyes.
- Cut down on clutter. Try to store items in large, solid-colored bins, or put them away in a closet or cabinet. Make sure items are clearly labeled if the children will be responsible for getting items out and putting them away.
- Organize the visual space.
- Use natural light and avoid fluorescent lighting whenever possible. If you must use florescent bulbs, look into diffusing covers to turn down the intensity. Several companies even make peel-and-stick ones. Some teachers also drape fabric around (not touching) the lights to cut down on the overly bright lights.
- Area rugs can help visually define spaces.
- Curtains can help block out extra light from outside as well.
- A visual or picture schedule for non-readers can be wonderful to help a child know “what happens next.”
The classroom can be a very noisy place. For a sensory kid, they might need extra help blocking out the sounds of their classmates, the fire truck outside the window, the lawnmower outside, and children in the hallway. On the flip side, a sensory seeker might be prone to making repetitive noises, speaking extra loudly, or appearing to have poor volume control. It seems backward, but often the child generating the noises will be the same one bothered by extra noises.
Sometimes sensory kids seem to be ignoring you – but really, they aren’t hearing you through all the verbal clutter. Whenever possible, be sure to get to eye level, be sure they are looking at you, and, if necessary, a gentle hand on the shoulder to get their attention.
- Noise can be overwhelming. Limit background music to set times of the day, or limit the volume.
- Sometimes more is better – a fan or other “white noise” can help block out distractions from other classrooms, especially during quiet time.
- Create a “quiet space” in your room where children can go to get away from the sounds. Provide earmuffs or old headphones (minus the wires) to use to help block out the noise. Fabric can help dampen sounds too.
- Use area rugs and curtains to diminish echoes.
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While this area is usually mostly out of our control, there are a few things you can do for a sensory child to help with the day to day scents that occur.
- Refrain from wearing heavily scented lotions and perfumes.
- Use an oil diffuser to help gently introduce calming scents (lavender, lilac, mint) or exciting scents (orange, lemon, rosemary).
- Use a few drops of essential oils on different stuffed animals or pillows.
- Keep some Febreze handy, screens in your windows, and a fan in case of some sudden unpleasant odors.
Picky eaters are one thing, but a child with Sensory Processing Disorder brings a whole new definition of the word. Unlike conventional sayings, these children often WON’T eat when they get hungry. Avoiders will gag or even vomit at the introduction of a new food, or even a familiar food in a different texture, such as cooked carrots instead of raw ones. A seeker is always looking for spicier, saltier flavors, or putting everything in their mouth.
- Provide a variety of different tastes (sweet, salty, sour, savory, bitter, spicy).
- Provide a variety of different textures (crunchy, chewy, creamy, liquid).
- Encourage exploring with food, even for those that will not taste the food.
- Never force a child to eat something – offer it gently and accept their refusal.
- Remember that some children will make odd combinations – don’t say, “Ew, don’t put ketchup on that!” It might be their way of compensating by adding a familiar taste or texture with a new flavor or texture.
- For a child with a constant oral habit (such as chewing on their shirt, pencil, etc.), provide chewlery or pencil toppers designed for that purpose (available online). Also, try to meet that need by providing and allowing small portions of crunchy snacks, chewing gum, etc.
Children with sensory issues are likely the students that either smear the fingerpaint up and down their arms and face, or they could be the child that doesn’t want anything to do with fingerpaint because it makes their hands messy. Some will rub their hands on a lovey, stuffed toy, or even a spot on the rug. Others will struggle with keeping shoes on or will become inconsolable if they notice a tag on their clothes or a seam in their sock rubbing. Sometimes they will insist on wearing the same clothes over and over, or clothing that seems too tight or too big.
- Have a variety of textured items in a calm-down spot. A fuzzy stuffed toy, some cotton balls, calm down bottles, a smooth plastic mirror, some rough Velcro, a textured rubber ball, various fabric scraps – these are all good additions.
- Sensory bins – You don’t need a whole table. Students can use dishpans or medium-sized tubs with lids filled with a variety of items such as sand, dry rice, uncooked pasta, dried beans, cornstarch, flour, dirt, aquarium gravel, river rocks, or water beads along with cups and dollar store toys for a great sensory experience.
- Provide brushes or other ways for a tactile avoider to enjoy painting, gluing, or other messy activities.
- Rubber gloves can help an avoider participate, too, as can a handy tub of baby wipes or paper towels for quick (and repetitive) cleaning.
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VESTIBULAR SENSE and PROPREOCEPTIVE SENSE
Sensory kids sometimes have an impaired sense of balance, coupled with a lack of sensing pain and danger. Here are some healthy ways to help. These activities will help with both the Vestibular sense and the Proprioceptive sense.
- Balance beams, stepping stones, even playing “hot lava” using carpet squares
- Wiggle cushions, yoga balls, stools, beanbags, and other alternative seating
- Scooters (both kinds) will help gain a sense of balance with movement
- Swings – tire swings, especially
- Body socks (like giant elastic pillowcases the child fits into)
- Parachute games
- Trampolines (small, will require supervision)
- Bosu Balls
- Obstacle courses
- Heavy work activities – things like carrying heavy books, wearing a backpack with weight in it, weighted blankets, weighted vests, carrying the lunchbox bin to the cafeteria
Sensory Smart Transitions
Finally, some quick schedule adjustments can really help your day. Instead of insisting that children come in off the playground and jump straight into their work, try a transition activity such as stretching or participating in more calming musical activities. Often the lunchroom and playground can create an overstimulating environment, and SPD children can struggle with calming down from those activities without help.