In any mainstream classroom, there are likely to be pupils who will be processing sensory information in a different way from the majority of their classmates.
These differences can affect their ability to cope with being in the classroom, their social and emotional functioning and, ultimately, their learning.
Unusual sensory processing differences appear to be quite common, affecting between five to 16 per cent of school-aged children. They are particularly prevalent among children with autism, but can also be present in other populations such children with ADHD, DCD and even those who do not have a particular diagnosis. Recent research at the University of California, San Francisco found differences in the microstructure of white matter in the brains of youngsters with sensory processing differences, suggesting that there may be some biological explanation.
For all of us, it is impossible for our brain to process all the sensory stimuli it receives. Babies experience this as a flood of information, perceiving the world in bits. As they develop, they gradually become able to bring these bits together to form concepts, and to close out irrelevant information. However, many children with sensory processing difficulties continue to struggle to filter out extraneous information. These children are often referred to as ‘hyper-sensitive’ since they experience the world too intensely and sometimes painfully.
These children may appear easily distracted by sensory stimuli but may also ‘shut down’ as a result of sensory overload. They are the children in your school who are unable to tolerate bright lights or fluorescent lighting. You may also see some covering their ears when exposed to certain noises. Some of them may also react strongly to being touched, and may in fact perceive a light touch as a painful experience.
As well as the more obvious senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste, less easily recognised senses such as proprioception (awareness of their own body in space) and vestibular, which affects movement and balance, are affected. The hypersensitive children may show difficulties in these areas by being fearful of swings and some playground equipment. They may bump into things and appear clumsy or they may have trouble judging the amount of force they need to apply when handwriting.
Conversely, there is another group of ‘hyposensitive’ children whose lack of sensitivity makes them seek out more sensory stimulation. These are the children who constantly need to touch textures and people, leading to some socially unacceptable behaviours. They may also often enter other people’s personal space, be very fidgety and restless, love jumping, deep pressure, crave intense movement and have a high tolerance of pain.
Sensory issues can be the source of many extreme or unexplained behaviour difficulties, so it is important that everyone working with these children takes the time to identify them and develop a better understanding of how they are experiencing the world. Occupational therapists specialising in sensory difficulties may be able to help. In addition, environmental adjustments in school can also help reduce overload and provide activities to help them be calmer and more regulated.
- Owen, J. P. et al: 2013 Abnormal white matter microstructure in children with sensory processing disorders. NeuroImage:Clinical 2013 June 23:2 pps 844-53.
- Bogdashina, O., 2003, Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome,.Jessica Kinglsey: London
- Stock Kranowitz, C. 2005, The Out of Sync Child: Recognising and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Perigree