Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

It can be difficult for teachers to know where to start with sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD would be more accurately described as a group of related disorders that can affect different children in a variety of different ways, and if you’re a teacher trying to do the best you can for the one child with SPD in your class, it can be tough to know what the correct approach is. That said, every child deserves the chance to succeed in education, and teachers who make an effort to understand the struggles that the child is facing could have a powerful, positive impact on that child’s experience of school.

What is sensory processing disorder?

Broadly speaking, there are three main disorders that are collectively known as SPD:

● Sensory modulation disorder is where the child finds it hard to respond properly to sensory stimuli, normally being over- or under-sensitive to things in the surroundings around them.

● Sensory discrimination disorder is where the child has difficulty with identifying specific pieces of sensory information, such as the speed at which something is moving.

● Sensory-based motor disorder relates to problems with organisation, motor-skills and balance. This often manifests as a postural disorder that means the child struggles to balance or sit still.

Another aspect of the complexity of SPD is that it can arise in connection with other disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, OCD and ADHD. It can also be unrelated to anything else. In general, a child with autism is very likely to have sensory processing difficulties, but a child that is identified as having SPD will not necessarily have another disorder.

Before going any further, it is important to realise that psychiatrists do not yet recognise SPD as a diagnosable condition. This is because the mental health profession is cautious of saying that SPD is the best way to identify and treat that specific set of symptoms. They are unconvinced with the existing evidence from current treatments, which remains largely anecdotal.

However, there are many people who do see SPD as a very real problem that children and their parents are struggling to deal with. In fact, there are many stories of parents whose children have been treated for SPD who have said that they have seen incredible improvements in their behaviour. In order to be best positioned to help children in school with sensory integration difficulties, teachers should understand the current thought around the disorder, and use it to give their pupils with SPD the best chance at doing well in a mainstream school.

How might SPD affect learning?

This is the key question for teachers to be able to answer, but there is no universal, hard and fast response. The different kinds of SPD in individual children mean that there is no way to say definitively how each child will act in a mainstream classroom.

Broadly speaking, the way that children with SPD respond to sensory stimuli could come across as bad behaviour that is disruptive for the other children in the classroom. Children who are oversensitive to sensory input may react badly to a sound that doesn’t affect other children, or they may come across as easily distracted by what seem like minor things. On the other hand, children who are under-sensitive may disrupt the class by seeking greater sensory input, by invading other children’s personal space, hugging, or hitting things.

Motor-based forms of SPD come with their own challenges, and children whose posture is affected by the disorder may struggle to sit on chairs for very long, and may come across as very fidgety. Some over-sensitive children may also find it uncomfortable to sit on the chair, and may also complain about the restrictiveness or discomfort of their clothing.

The problems caused by this behaviour quickly become apparent. If the children are struggling to sit still and to focus, then they are unlikely to learn very much in the process over the course of the school day. Additionally, if they respond violently to sensory stimuli, they may also make it very difficult for the other children around them to engage as well.

Occupational therapy and sensory stimulation

Occupational therapists (OTs) are leading the way when it comes to the treatment of SPD. OTs prescribe a very practical, activity-based approach to helping children to deal with SPD, involving sensory gyms, and exercises that can be continued at home and school. The idea behind occupational therapy is that exposing children to sensory stimulation in a safe environment helps them to learn how to process sensory information properly.

Whilst sensory gyms are a major part of many OTs’ treatments, there are also techniques such as joint massage that are applied, and parents are encouraged to make the treatment part of their daily lives, not just something that they do for a couple of hours each week. If treatment can be brought into a school environment as well, the consistency will improve for the child, and they would hopefully begin to improve more quickly.

In terms of practical steps that can be taken at school, the first is that the teacher needs to understand the nature of the child’s SPD by talking to the parents and possibly the therapist. From there, you can specifically focus on the needs of that child. Some common and easy to implement treatments could include fidget toys, or providing some other form of easy to access stimulation for the child. Having something to fidget with not only provides a regulated level of sensory input, but also allows the child to relieve stress, particularly in situations where they feel over-stimulated. 

Another common struggle for children with SPD is quick transitions from one thing to another. It may be worth seeing whether there is a way to make the transition from different activities less jarring for the child in your class, perhaps by more slowly winding down one activity and preparing them for the next. Immediately stopping one activity to move onto another is likely to cause children with SPD a lot of stress. 

Thankfully there are a few simple changes that, with a bit of thought, can noticeably improve a child’s experience of mainstream education.

Why understanding SPD is critical

In cases where children have SPD alongside other disorders such as autism, it can be tempting to say that they would be better off outside of mainstream schooling. This may be true in some cases, but for many other children, taking them out of mainstream school deprives them of a range of strong role models, social interactions, and also higher expectations that can help them to achieve. 

Most teachers already have a lot on their plate, catering to a wide variety of educational needs, but making small changes to better accommodate a child with SPD does not have to be something draining. Once the teacher understands the needs of the individual child, they can make smaller adjustments along the lines of those mentioned above that could make a big difference to the child. Remember, if the child is seeing an OT then they will have more intensive treatment programs elsewhere, and their parents should also be helping at home. The goal of the teacher should not be to solve the problem alone, but to facilitate the work that is being done elsewhere to give the child a consistent experience and the best chance of improving in their sensory integration.

Ultimately, every child needs to be given the chance to succeed in our education system, and we can’t ignore the opportunity to help them do just that. By understanding SPD, particularly how it affects the individual children that you teach, there is the potential to make a very real difference in their life and the way they engage with education into the future - that has to be worth doing.

This article was written by Patrick Tonks, creative director at Great Bean Bags, who hand-make sensory school bean bags for children with SPD.

October 20, 2016

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