A look at how to recognise and support people with sensory processing difficulties
Sensory processing disorder impacts the way someone will interact and engage with their environment. It is important that we are familiar with identifying characteristics which can relate to some of these processing difficulties in order for us to provide appropriate and personalised support. In this article, I will run through some familiar characteristics and what we can understand from them relating to sensory needs.
Our senses are the primary way that we learn about our surroundings and respond to them; because of this, it’s crucial that we know how a sensory processing disorder (SPD) can impact a students learning. We should be confident to offer sensory approaches to learning not only to support the students to engage but also to offer new experiences.
An SPD affects one in 20 children (www.spdstar.org/basic/latest-research-findings), who do not necessarily have any other diagnosis, so that could be at least one child in a classroom. SPD is recognised as part of an autism spectrum diagnosis, but can also commonly be associated with a wide range of conditions, including dyspraxia, ADHD, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, fragile X, foetal alcohol syndrome, Angleman syndrome, epilepsy and premature birth.
We are all processing sensory information from each of our sensory systems every second of the day. Our brains are active in making us aware of sensations as and when we need them. When we process sensations, there are two key parts to what happens. The first is the “sensation” – the physical act of receiving sensation by the sensory organ (for example, light entering your eye). The second part is “perception” – the interpretation of the sensation by our brain and the meaningful response to it.
An SPD occurs when our brain finds it difficult to do the second part (perception); while all the sensory organs may work perfectly well (sensation), it is the organising of the messages into meaningful responses which is the difficulty for people with SPD.
Too much information (or too little)
People with SPD can have difficulties modulating sensory information; this can mean they process too many (hyper-sensitive) or not enough (hypo-sensitive) sensations. This is often the most common way we recognise children with SPD in the classroom; these students may be seeking or avoiding particular activities. Other ways SPD can impact someone include difficulties discriminating sensory information (working out how intense a feeling is or where the location of the sensation came from) and problems with motor-based coordination, which can be linked with dyspraxia.
We are able to recognise characteristics relating to SPD that can help inform us about what sensory information someone might be having difficulties processing. In the classroom, this is a really important skill to have as it will help to improve students’ learning. These characteristics are in response to how that student is experiencing their environment; once we can recognise them, we can personalise the support we provide.
Some characteristics may be more obvious than others. For example, if a child covers their ears while still doing an activity, it is likely that they are processing too many auditory messages, so they might be hyper-sensitive to auditory information. They are covering their ears to try to avoid or block out some of the sounds. As one child, Niamh, explains: “When I’m in a classroom, it feels like I’m in a playground because the class is so loud.”
However, if a child enjoys flickering reflective fabric in front of their eyes, following shadows or spinning objects, they are seeking more visual information, which would suggest they are hypo-sensitive to visual sensations. Flicking and spinning objects are great ways to give or seek out more visual information.
Because SPD can be prevalent without any other diagnosis we are likely to recognise students in mainstream as well as SEN settings. In cases where SPD is misunderstood or not known about, it could mean that a student’s sensory needs have been supported as a “behaviour”. This can have a negative impact on a student’s cooperation and learning.
Let’s look a little closer at some of the common characteristics of SPD and what they mean. These factors are an indicator to us of what that child’s body needs.
SPD characteristics relating to modulation difficulties
Here are a few common signs of modulation difficulties for each sensory system which we might observe in people with SPD.
|Hyper-sensitive (too many sensations)||Hypo-sensitive (not enough sensations)|
Fingers in ears.
Pushing behind ears.
Constantly making sounds.
Turns up the volume.
Loves speaker vibrations.
Pushes things off desk.
|Distracted by shadows.
Enjoys looking at water, waves and flickering shiny objects.
Plays with saliva.
|Tactile||Difficulty changing clothes.
Withdraws from lining up or sitting next to others.
May seem to overreact to light touch.
|Fidgets with objects.
Puts things in mouth.
Eats crunchy dry foods.
Loves playing with sand and messy play.
|Proprioception (body awareness)||Breaks pencil nibs when writing.
Seems heavy handed.
Difficulty with buttons.
Stands up and jumps.
|Vestibular (movement)||Prefers to stay seated.
Reluctant to join in activities.
Sits in strange positions.
Spins in circles.
Bangs their head.
Keeps objects or clothing to nose.
|Smells other people.
Licks objects and food.
|Taste||Drinks water – unflavoured.
Eats bland flavoured foods of any texture or colour.
|Eats strong flavoured foods.|
Some characteristics, however, can relate to more than one sensory system. For example, if someone is walking on their tiptoes, they could be hyper-sensitive to tactile sensations or hypo-sensitive to proprioceptive or vestibular sensations. Before we begin putting in place strategies to support a student, it is important we are able to view the bigger picture of their sensory needs and identify which sensory systems over-ride the others. We have to be detectives in working out why we are observing different characteristics.
If a student is walking on tiptoes, we should try to look out for other opportunities where characteristics of being hyper-sensitive to tactile information are in evidence; are they sensitive to clothing, or certain textured foods? However, if they are regularly seeking out movement and body awareness – they may fidget in their seat or bounce or jump – this will then help to answer the question as to why they might be walking on their toes, if it’s relating to an SPD.
Implementing appropriate strategies to support students with SPD is important because it will help them to regulate the information being processed. Students will be able to concentrate better and focus on an activity if their senses are able to work together.
Physical activity between periods of work can be really supportive; something helpful like moving books to the teachers desk or pushing a trolley of resources to the store room can really help someone with SPD to regulate themselves. The effects of this kind of physical activity (or heavy work) will be much longer lasting, in terms of promoting concentration, than just having sensory resources available at someone’s desk. So if you can, try and incorporate this kind of activity into your classroom routines.
It’s also a good idea for classrooms to have a “sensory support sack”. This can contain a selection of sensory items which are ready to be used as and when needed. In this bag, I suggest including sound cancelling headphones and swimmers wax (which is used in the ears to stop water from going in). Not all students will like the feeling of headphones so they may like to block out sound by putting something else in their ear. You could also include a cap, sunglasses, a mirror and a desk clip torch, which can all provide simple and immediate ways to support students who avoid or seek visual information to help them concentrate. Weighted bean bags or lap rests can be really calming and help someone to feel grounded and aware of themselves. You could also explore textures for students who feel things around them and fidget, such as exfoliating gloves, squidgy textured fidgets, and rough and smooth brushes. For students who find it difficult to sit down throughout a lesson, a massaging cushion can be really effective. Place it behind the child’s back or under their feet. This will provide lots of stimulation and may be enough to help them sit for longer. Opportunities to drink or do activities using straws are brilliant to create an awareness of ourselves, and can also be calming as many of our senses are being organised when we drink or blow bubbles through straws.
Being creative in the classroom
Creativity is such an effective tool. If a hat works for one child with hyper-sensitivity to light, remember it might not be as effective for another student. Try and implement something which replicates what that student is doing to regulate the specific sensation. If they are peeping through their fingers to see you, think about where they are seated. Is it possible to move them? If they are sitting opposite a window, it could be really painful on bright days. Sunglasses can work in this instance.
Sensory strategies can be helpful for all students, so offer support for all the class, if you can, as it will help reinforce their understanding of different learning styles within the classroom.
Students who have a sensory diet which has been initiated by an occupational therapist should be able to access it as and when needed throughout their day. View this as a sensory lifestyle – a support routine which helps someone to engage and learn in all settings. For students with SPD, the most important thing to remember is that sensory support should never be used as a reward or taken away from a student as a punishment.
Top tips to support people with SPD
Here are a few practical ideas and pieces of advice to help people of different ages to manage SPD in a range of settings:
- turn off all technology when it is not being used, as the frequencies can be painful
- wear plain clothes when you are teaching, as patterns are often a huge distraction
- don’t drink a strong smelling cup of coffee just before reading a book with a child
- let the child keep their headphones on while working, as they may be able to hear your voice better with music playing in the background
- take account of the effects of weather conditions; for example, wind can be really painful, whether it’s a storm or a light breeze, so the person with SPD may prefer to stay inside
- walking into the canteen may make them gag, so they may be much happier eating their lunch outside
- in the office, be aware that people with SPD can easily become overwhelmed with information, such as numerous emails, phone calls and conversations
- don’t take away the pencil they are rolling between their fingers as it may be helping them to concentrate
- give them plenty of time to process each question you put to them and if you ask it a second time, don’t phrase it differently as they may understand this as a whole new question
- think about the smells you wear each day, such as those from shampoo, shower gel, deodorant, perfume, aftershave, washing detergent and coffee
- eating really crunchy foods can help them to drown out all the other sounds around them
- recognise that they may enjoy spending time alone; if they withdraw from a social environment, it may sometimes be to help them self-regulate.
Becky Lyddon is the founder of Sensory Spectacle, a company providing workshops and immersive training to help professionals, families, employers and organisations to understand and support people with SPD: