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Sensory Issues For Neurodiverse Students

By Lisa R. Berman, LMSW


Sensory Issues in Gifted Students

Children who are gifted and those with ADHD and Autism have a prevalence of sensory processing difficulty that is much higher than in the general population. This means they may be unable to modulate their activity level, and their level of excitement. For example, noises may hurt their ears and bright lights may really disturb them. When my son was about three years old, he was terrified of crowds and fireworks. His twin sister was not upset to the same degree as he was. I tried to protect him, and recall putting my hands over his ears, or holding him close to me, thinking that was the best remedy.

Understanding Sensory Processing

Sensory processing is the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. For those with difficulty processing sensory information, sensory information goes into the nervous system but does not get interpreted accurately for appropriate responses.

Senses are the first things that a baby experiences. They form the foundation for interpreting the world. The brain processes sensory information before any other input, like language. Deep touch and pressure such as swaddling a baby is calming to the infant. Watching a mobile offers stimulating sensory input. Other kinds of sensory input provides a centering or focusing result. If the foundation for interpreting the world is askew, it makes moving forward challenging as well. Many children, my son included went from a diagnosis of sensory integration disorder to anxiety to maybe Asperger’s syndrome. While that diagnosis has changed several times and is still in flux, his being hyper-aroused by sights and sounds was our first inkling of differences. He also had a habit of playing with tags in his shirts. He didn’t want them cut out, but liked to fidget with them.

What looks like naughty or bad behavior may be due to sensory discomfort. Sounds can be experienced as painful. Think of how chalk on a blackboard makes you feel. It hurts.

Tactile sensitivity can also be painful. Think of when you’ve worn an itchy sweater. Light touch can be experienced as an annoyance. Tasting a lemon is an all-over discomfort, A young child hiding may be withdrawing from light sensitivity.

The Role of Occupational Therapists

One area occupational therapists work with children on are sensory issues. They teach children how to soothe themselves and how to help them manage responses to sensory input. My son attended the Glenholme School in Connecticut, graduating in 2019 with his high school diploma. Glenholme is a therapeutic boarding school for youngsters with ADHD, high functioning autism, anxiety and depression.

When the coronavirus thwarted the Glenholme School’s plan to create a sensory room, the school’s clinicians had to think fast and pivot. The space reserved for this purpose was needed for social distancing.

How The Glenholme School Adapted

Rather than have only students identified as needing occupational therapy the school’s clinical director, movement/dance therapist, OT and one of the social workers devised methods to help students with sensory processing in everyday activities. They are teaching residential and educational staff how to help students calm their bodies when excited, center themselves and energize themselves. Ordinary supplies that might be found outdoors, inside the cottages or in classrooms are being used. The staff is putting together a training manual to teach the boarding staff in an intentional way how to lead the youngsters through different somatic and sensory exercises. Many of these activities are ones that the residential staff already do with students, but may not have had the conceptual framework in which to place these activities.

Bike riding, playing on swings, balancing on logs or curbs, hiking, twister, climbing trees, tumbling, making slime, or baking bread and cookies are everyday activities that provide sensory input. Dancing, mindful breathing and rolling down hills are additional sensory activities. Staff conduct these activities with students routinely. While staff may be intuitively aware of these activities’ value, the staff are now being taught formally, which activities are calming, energizing, or centering. My son routinely uses his breathing to calm himself down. Loud noises and bright lights do not faze him. As a young adult, his sensory processing appears to be like anyone else’s. The skills that he learned, he has generalized.

Tips for Sensory Activities at Home

A couple tips for parents looking to replicate sensory activities:

  • Breathing exercises are useful and innocuous for everyone. You can do this with your youngster. From a seated or standing position, take a deep breath in to the count of four. Try to hold for four, and then exhale slowly to the count of five, Do a series of three of these. If you can only hold for three, that’s okay. As you do these over time, you and your child will be able to hold for longer periods and breathe in and out more deeply. As long as the exhale is longer than the inhale, there will be benefits.
  • For creating your own family sensory room, work with your occupational therapist to make sure you are implementing the best experience for your child. You want to create the optimal experience you can, and will need input on whether your child needs to have energizing, calming or centering exercises.
  • For additional resources, consult:
    • American Occupational Therapy Association – aota.org
    • The Out-of-Sync Child– Carol Stock Kranowitz
    • Sensory Processing 101 – Abram, Heffron, Braley and Drobnjak
    • The OT Toolbox- theottoolbox.com

For everyone, throughout one’s journey, it is helpful to learn what helps one feel better; be it more relaxed, energized or focused. Learning these skills in an organized fashion is a true gift.

Headshot of Lisa Berman

Lisa R. Berman, LMSW, trained as a social worker and worked primarily with inner city children and adolescents in congregate care. She pioneered wilderness therapy with weeklong adventures for youngsters; many of whom had never been out of range of the New York City subway system, After a brief stint in social work, she left and ventured into the world of television advertising where she remained for many, many years. Now the mother of 19 year-old twins, Lisa is working with her son’s alma mater, the Glenholme School, in community outreach. She can be reached at lberman2@devereux.org