The Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Student

SPD kid

With Sensory Processing Disorder, normal daily demands in a classroom are stressful. Homeschooling provides an alternative for your child that allows him or her to grow with accommodations and love…

With SPD, normal daily demands in a regular classroom become stressful.

  • Bright lights can cause headaches
  • Humming lights are distracting
  • Hearing other kids breathing is annoying
  • People may be talking or laughing too loudly
  • The teacher’s words may be too fast or confusing
  • The sound of the school bell is scary
  • Smells may seem overwhelming
  • The seat may feel too hard
  • The clothes being worn may irritate the skin
  • The kid in the next seat may be too close for comfort
  • It is difficult to listen to the teacher and write at the same time

SPD students may be labeled as ‘picky’ or ‘finicky,’ and their issues may be ignored.   This response can lead to an emotional roller coaster.

  • It can be difficult for the student to label emotions (they end up called ‘fear’)
  • It may be difficult to identify the source of the problem
  • Once identified, it can be difficult to share those emotions, and they are often dismissed
  • This can lead to a cyclic reaction, as the struggles are then internalized, leading to more difficulty with regulating emotions
  • The more heightened and dysregulated the emotions, the more difficulty the student will have filtering out sensory input. 
  • Do you see the cycle?? 

Is your child highly sensitive?  How many of these statements apply to your child?

  • Over-sensitive or under-sensitive to noise, touch, smell, etc
  • Easily distracted
  • Agitated, anxious, or irritable
  • Poor tolerance for frustration
  • Impulsive, with poor self-control
  • Obsessive-compulsive
  • Repetitive, uses self-stimulation
  • Oppositional-defiant
  • Tunes out or withdraws
  • Has tantrums and meltdowns (beyond the toddler years)
  • Rigid / inflexible thinking
  • Need to maintain control in situations
  • Need for routine, sameness, and predictability

Examples of self-stimulatory behavior include rocking, hand-flapping, vocalizing, or jumping. These behaviors are an attempt to self-regulate the arousal level and screen out unwanted stimulation when over-aroused.  They can also be used to maintain alertness when under-aroused.  These self-stimulating behaviors are often used early on, until the child learns other ways of regulating arousal.

It can be helpful to learn your child’s specific nervous system quirks.

  • What calms him?
  • What alerts him?
  • What are his sensitivities?
  • What overwhelms him?
  • What are his sensory preferences?
  • What interaction style is he drawn to (or does he avoid)?
  • What learning style works best for him?
  • What helps him feel safe and accepted?

The SPD child may not have any issues during the school day, but while keeping it together, he is accumulating stress neuro-chemicals throughout the day.  The teacher doesn’t see the problem, but it is the parent who experiences the meltdowns after the child gets home to a ‘safe’ environment.  These ‘after-effects’ show up as meltdowns and shutdowns.

Meltdown Shutdown
Stress chemicals reach boiling point
Coping skills collapse
Child acts out to escape or avoid situation and reduce anxiety
Hitting, kicking, pushing, throwing, slamming, biting self or others, and head banging all provide proprioceptive stimulation which releases stress chemicals
Occurs when chemicals build quickly
Stimulation becomes too overwhelming, and nervous system shuts down
Child may be lethargic, limp, unresponsive, and staring or closing eyes
Occurs when chemicals increase gradually

Many people see the child as oppositional and purposefully acting out, but in true meltdowns, the child loses all self-control.  He is not being oppositional; his stress chemicals have reached a boiling point and overtaken him.  Trying to counsel, scold, or reason during a meltdown is ineffective.  Reasoning skills are neurologically unavailable at this point, and the child is often remorseful after calming.  Punishment only works if the child has some degree of control over his behavior.

It is helpful to touch base with all teachers, support staff, and even relatives, to help them understand.  To help your child develop a learning profile

  • Define comfort zones (what is calming)
  • Know which interaction style is most comforting (what makes him feel safe)
  • Define sensory sensitivities and develop accommodations
  • Know his strengths, weaknesses, dislikes, and tolerance levels
  • Create a list of supports and best teaching strategies
  • Know which triggers are the most overwhelming and how to quickly soothe these

Learning to help your child with sensory disorders falls into four categories

  1. Organize Nervous System – Incorporate physical activity daily; consult with a doctor about a sensory diet, supplements, and medication (if needed).
  2. Reduce Sensory Overload – Develop sensory accommodations to prevent overwhelm; establish a plan for calming meltdowns.
  3. Reduce Confusion – Develop a routine, with visual strategies for transitions.  Slow down the day, particularly during transitional times, and continually review with the child.  Take changes slowly.
  4. Establish Boundaries – Set clear boundaries for both the child and interactions with others.  Set expectations and work with child on self-advocation (once older) and using accommodations.  Respect his comfort zones.

Teaching Tools

There are many different strategies for helping the SPD child learn to cope with daily stressors.  It is best to choose one too and work at instilling it before moving on to the next.  Select an easy-to-incorporate one first, to help build self-confidence, before tackling more difficult ones.  Over time, these can become a part of the daily routine.

Proprioceptive Activities Vestibular Activities
Stretching
Wall pushups
Squeeze ball
Run, jump, skip
Lift, carry, push/pull heavy object
Vacuum or sweep
Play leap frog or tug-of-war
Hit, kick, bounce, throw ball
Calm, crawl, scoot, pull up
Roll / knead dough or clay
Wrestle, rough house, pillow fight
Weighted vest, lap pad, or blanket
Jump on trampoline
Swing on swing set or hammock
Run, skip, ride bike
Spin, rotate, swivel chair
Sit & Spin
Play on scooter or wagon
Rock back and forth on rocking chair
Hopscotch, tag, chase
Swingset – slide, seesaw, trapeze
Rock back and forth on therapy ball

Anti-Perfectionism

Help the child learn to fight perfectionism.  All children, regardless of sensitivity, can benefit from learning to ‘fail to succeed,’ meaning to learn from failure.  Teach the child to focus on effort and attitude, rather than performance.  Explain that ‘good enough’ is still good.  (You can demonstrate this by baking cookies that are purposefully less than perfect, and then having a tasting party!  Are they perfect?  No.  Are they good enough?  Yes.)  Make a game of making mistakes each day.  (Obviously, not life-threatening ones.)  Model how to own the mistake and learn from it.  Play games where there are ‘snags,’ such as Chutes & Ladders.

Relaxation Training

Integrated Learning Strategies has several breathing exercises for teaching children to self-soothe. Check them out at this page.

Attention & Focus

  • You may have to remind him to refocus several times a day, but try to do so without anger or frustration.
  • Break large tasks into smaller bits, and recognize the completion of these smaller tasks.
  • Use charts to help keep them focused on the tasks at hand.

So how does this play out in the real-world?   You can break the cycle of the ABCs of SPD!

Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Asked to do something
Homework assignment
Community event
Hitting self or others
Screaming
Hiding
Escape / avoid task at hand

For each of the three antecedents, we’ve outlined possible cognitive or sensory deficits that lead to the behaviors and provided alternative procedures for approaching them.

For example, when asked to complete a task, the child may not understand multiple steps of instruction. By breaking the task into smaller chunks and allowing time to process the request, the child can feel successful.

Deficits Procedures
Cognitive
Delayed processing
Multi-step direction difficulty
Short attention span
Trouble transitioning
Difficulty with uncertainty  

Sensory
Sensitive to touch / noise / smell Overwhelmed by crowds
Difficulty processing oral directions
Request
Use short phrases and visual cues (c)
Give time to process directions (c)
Break task into smaller chunks (c)
Use cues before transitioning (c)  

Homework assignment
Break homework into small chunks (c)
Do one thing at a time, with breaks (c)  

Community event
Use headphones or ear plugs to block noise (s)
Avoid crowded times (s) Prepare by previewing what will happen (c)

If you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, then you already know that normal daily demands can be a bit of a minefield. You’ve probably already developed several strategies, perhaps unwittingly, to help him cope. Homeschooling provides an educational path for your child that allows him or her to grow with accommodations and love. You’ve got this, mama!