Imagine walking into a room. There is a really bright light and it hurts your eyes. You immediately close your eyes to block the light. Suddenly there is a terrifyingly loud, high pitched noise. You cover your ears and drop to the floor. It’s too much to handle right?
Now imagine that happened and you were told you had to write a story, right there! Do you write it? Do you refuse and run out the room, your only thought to get away from the light and noise? Do you ignore the request and stay on the floor with your ears and eyes covered? Do you want to go back into the room next time or would you worry?
Our brains take in information from our senses all the time. We constantly process sounds, tastes, smells, touch and what we see. We constantly process our movement and spatial information. We do this without even noticing because our brains process the information for us.
Some children (and adults) have difficulties processing this information. This is called Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.
SPD can affect any or all of the senses and can make life quite difficult.
Some children with SPD’s brains will under react to sensory input. This means they end up needing and seeking more stimulation in order to function. They are sometimes referred to as sensory seekers.
Some children’s brains over react to sensory input so they end up avoiding or becoming overwhelmed. They are sometimes referred to as sensory avoiders.
Some children’s brains do both!
Let’s have a look at what this might mean for a child with SPD:
Children that under react to sensory input may not have a good sense of personal space and might stand too close to other people. They might tolerate pain too well or seem like they haven’t been hurt.
They might stomp or walk heavily, jump around, bump and crash into things.
They might accidently hurt their friends or break things because they don’t know their own strength.
They might make loud noises or like to be in loud places.
They might chew their clothes, toys and anything else. They might like to smell everything.
Children that over react to sensory input may experience sensory input more intensely than other people.
These children may be picky with their foods or clothes because of the taste and feel.
They may not like being hugged or touched or bumped into and may seem to overreact.
Certain noises and bright lights may really irritate or hurt them. They might hear background noises we don’t normally notice.
They might avoid swings etc and may appear to be clumsy.
These children may not like crowds and prefer to be in a quieter place.
Some children will have a combination of sensory avoiding and sensory seeking!
My son hates crowds. Noises hurt his ears. He smells things I can’t and light touch hurts him. On the flip side, he likes to be hugged tight and can tolerate high levels of pain. He loves swings and roller coasters.
Children with SPD may seem like they are able to tolerate more sensory input or need more sensory input at different times. This is because other factors will affect how they react to sensory input, such as how comfortable the child feels,where they are, any anxieties and how used to the situation they are.
School and SPD
Some children, like my son, really struggle to be in school because of SPD. They can’t stand the noise, the amount of children in the classroom, the playground or the dining room. Others may seem really disruptive, running round the classroom or breaking and chewing things. School can be a very difficult place for a child with SPD. They can build up anxieties around these things, often leading to them refusing to do them or even refusing school itself, so it is vital that schools put things in place to meet the needs of children with SPD.
How can I help a child with SPD?
The best way to help is to get to know the child. Work out their triggers and give them ways of coping. The answer will be different for each child. Some may need ear defenders, sunglasses, weighted blankets, lycra sheets. Others may need chew toys, sensory rooms, stretchy elastic, trampolines.
In school a child may need a quieter place to work and eat, regular breaks to run around between work, a special chair that gives sensory input, dimmed lights. This list is by all means not exhaustive!
If you teach a child with SPD they may appear to have behavioural issues. The most helpful thing you can do is not label the child as disruptive and instead talk to the parents about how you can help meet their sensory needs in your classroom. Understanding, being a bit flexible and implementing simple small or bigger changes can be all that’s needed to really help a child with SPD.
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