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Sensory speculation

Joanna Grace 28 March, 2017

In my work at The Sensory Projects I am keen to let audiences know that the information I share with them sprouts from roots firmly planted in research and practice. As I travel around the country on the trains, frequently undertaking journeys of six hours or more, I consume the latest research into all things sensory. So it is unusual for me to speculate. But that is what I plan to do here, because we in education are noticing a change, and it is only natural to wonder what is going on.

The change we are observing is a rise in the number of students presenting with sensory issues. Perhaps you have some students in your classroom with the label of ‘Sensory Processing Disorder.’ If you use social media then you may have spotted this trend online too; there are any number of tick box websites where you can diagnose yourself, or your child, as having Sensory Processing Disorder and help groups for those seeking to support children with sensory processing difficulties abound.

So what is going on? It is easy to view Sensory Processing Disorder as a fad diagnosis, the way ADHD was in the early 90s. With some doctors openly admitting that they handed out the diagnosis, knowing the condition was not present, as a way to get support to chaotic families. Is that what is happening now?

Firstly and most importantly we need to recognise Sensory Processing Disorder is a real thing, in 2009 the research showing a physiological difference in the brains of individuals with SPD was published. But does every child with the label Sensory Processing Disorder have this physiological difference? Does every child presenting with “sensory issues” have this difference?

I do not believe so. And what is more I believe it is unhelpful, both those with the condition and those who do not have the condition but display the symptoms of it, to treat them as if they do. We risk making the same mistake as was made with research into dyslexia, by grouping two fundamentally different groups of people together and acting as if they are the same. With early dyslexia research slow readers and dyslexics were grouped together, strategies to help dyslexics were tested on this group. They worked on the slow readers, and so were reported as working on a significant percentage of people with dyslexia but actually had no impact what so ever on dyslexics.

The two groups: the children with Sensory Processing Disorder and the children displaying symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder who do not have the condition, need different types of support. To mix them up is to muddle our provision.

As I said at the start this is speculation, informed speculation, but speculation none the less. Who do I think that second group are? Well I think we have a generation growing up with more screen time than previous generations and although a range of wonderful skills are learned as we swipe and click, they are missing out on those early sensory experiences that help to organise and wire our brain.

With some early developmental experiences the link to later skills is clear, the babbling a baby makes becomes the speech of the child, which in turn becomes the words they attempt to write, the sentences they compose. With others it is harder to see the link between that early, seemingly aimless play, and later school based skills. What has messing around in mud got to do with education? What does rolling down a grass bank do for our schooling? But in fact these early sensory experiences which would once have been common to us all underpin our later higher level skills just as much as the more obvious ones do. As we roll down the bank we give our proprioceptive and vestibular systems a work out, and as these systems strengthen and hone they improve our ability to be able to sit still and pay attention. As we mess with the mud we tune in our tactile systems, a forerunner to many things including eating and gripping a pencil. All of our early sensory experiences are the bedrock for our later abilities to focus and decipher information in the world. Without them what are we?

Without those early sensory experiences we are fidgety, we are disturbed by everyday sensory experiences, we cannot regulate our output, we are fussy eaters, we are too loud, too quiet, we hit too hard, we are mal-coordinated and clumsy. These things matter. A child displaying these symptoms, whether they have SPD or not, is a child in need of support.

The children with sensory issues who do not have SPD need to make up for what they missed early on. They need you to be putting opportunities for sensory experiences into your lessons. They need the opportunity to get up and move around, to leap and jump and spin and fidget. If you prevent them you just hold them back for longer. We cannot ‘rule’ their need to orientate their senses out of them, we can only provide for it. A child who gets this stimulation will in time be able to concentrate, to sit still, to be calm, to focus, to decipher and absorb information from the world.

The children with SPD will probably always find certain sensory experiences difficult and increased exposure is not going to change that. What they need is to learn, through supported exposure, strategies for coping with these stimuli and regulating their responses. The precise nature of those strategies will always be down to what the experiences are they find difficult. It might be calming strategies to help them counter the distress caused by the experiences or it might be strategies that directly avoid or block the experience.

What can you do? How can you tell if a child has SPD, or has symptoms that look like SPD? You can’t. All you can do is be aware. Trust your instincts. Not because this is the best solution, but because that is all you have got. Give your students the opportunity to have a rich variety of sensory experiences within your lessons, and if a child seems to struggle with experience support them to discover strategies to help them cope.

It is not helpful to label children with a condition they do not have. Doing so for Sensory Processing Disorder dilutes respect for a condition newly identified that needs understanding, not doubting, and leaves those seeking to support individuals selecting strategies at random. People may believe that a child needs a label in order to get your support. I trust this is not true, and that each child in your class is supported according to their own individual needs as best you can.