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Autism in School: How Do Sensory Issues Affect the Classroom?

sensory in the classroomAutistic children may face many challenges learning in a classroom full of peers. Beyond problems that arise due to deficits in Executive Functioning (disorganization, forgetfulness, punctuality, etc.), weak central coherence (hyper-focusing on details), and Theory of Mind (difficulty understand other’s intentions), children with autism often have unique sensory needs. The tendency to have hyper-reactivity, or hypo-reactivity to sensory stimuli (responding to stronger, or not strongly enough) can be the culprit of some classroom difficulties.

Sensory Issues: Auditory Processing

“Johnny does not follow instructions, is unfocused, and doesn’t pay attention or listen when the teacher is speaking.” These are common comments that parents of children on the autism spectrum receive from educators. Often what no-one has considered is whether or not Johnny heard the teacher at all.Autistic children have many sensory differences of like social participation, visions, hearing, body awareness and balance and motion. When a child appears not to “listen” auditory processing differences should be considered. Children with auditory processing differences may be unable to read while in the same room where a television or radio is playing, or where other people in the room are talking. When intensely focused on a task, they may not process the sounds around them. These children may not hear verbal cues to shift activities, or teacher’s instructions. If the interruption to their concentration registers at all, they may not comprehend, and often do not recall verbal instructions. Additionally, the child may not respond to his name being called (very loudly) when he is focused on an activity.

Stimming and Proprioception

“Johnny is fidgety, or has ants in his pants, and cannot sit still.” Johnny may need sensory breaks during his school day. Humming, tapping, hair-twirling, rocking, spinning, and bouncing can all be “stimming” behaviors. These behaviors are normal and necessary for the child on the autism spectrum. Stimming can occur when the child is trying to calm down, or concentrate. It can also manifest when they are anxious. It may not be that your child cannot sit still because they do not want to, but because they simply cannot.Autistic children need proprioceptive input (bouncing, spinning, jumping, sliding, swinging) and physical activity every day; lack of this physical activity results in increased anxiety levels, and decreased focus and learning. If this has become an issue in the classroom, the child may need more activity than they are currently being afforded.

Accommodating Sensory Issues in the Classroom

These are just a few suggestions that can help a child function more smoothly in the classroom. Student can be allowed to wear ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to help with focus and auditory processing issues especially during periods of reading, and test taking. Tests can be given in alternative locations, where there is minimal noise and distractions. Frequent Sensory Breaks—”safe spots” for stimming type behaviors (humming, tapping, fidget ball, bouncing etc.) can be designated. Stimming behaviors should not to be punished. Redirecting the child to a different location and ensuring that plenty of opportunities for these sensory breaks occur during the day will help reduce these behaviors in the classroom. Recess is the most effective way to incorporate these much needed breaks. Autistic children need recess. This need for down time in the day is based on the child’s disability; it provides them with proprioceptive stimuli, which they cannot function without. When a child with autism loses recess it changes their schedule, takes away time for a physical and mental break that their body and mind needs, and causes overstimulation which makes the rest of their day more difficult.

Autistic children do not process the world around them in the same way as their neuro-typical peers. Classroom lighting (especially fluorescents) can cause headaches, noise levels that do not seem high, may be overwhelming to their overly sensitive ears, and the classroom temperature may be consistently uncomfortable. To deal with this intensified world, children (and adults) with autism cope through a number of “stimming” behaviors. These cannot, and should not be stopped because they are necessary to the individual’s ability to cope. Although you cannot eliminate the sensory differences that autistic experiences, these few tips can help them to better cope in a classroom setting and make them more comfortable

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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