Teaching pupils with sensory difficulties

Written by: Kristina Symons | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teaching children with autism sensory difficulties can provide specific challenges for classroom teachers. Kristina Symons breaks down some of the most common challenges for pupils with autism and offers her advice

“When I was young I always seemed to feel things more than others. If I grazed my knee, I would feel pain for hours and hours. I used to tantrum over smells and noises and I would always be told to snap out of it.” Paul, ASD

Most children have balanced senses, they will see, hear and feel within the same range. They will appreciate the feel of different fabrics, enjoy a range of tastes and tolerate different levels of noise. If they fall, there may be a few moments of pain, but they will recover quickly and continue the activity they were enjoying.

Autistic children, however, have sensory imbalances which can make life tough for them. It has recently been recognised that autistic children will present over or under-sensitivity in the areas of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and body awareness. This can make school a very difficult place to be. The anxiety caused by their sensory imbalances can lead to unwanted classroom behaviours such as rocking, swaying, spinning, fidgeting and clicking or humming noises. So how does sensory imbalance present itself at school and what impact will this have in the classroom?

Sight

“When I look at people’s faces I look at their eyes, or lips, or nose. I don’t look at the whole face. This makes it very difficult for me to remember who people are and work out how they are feeling. I have to rely on what they sound like.” Paul, ASD.

The inability to see the whole object – many ASD children will focus on one detail and the rest of the object is blurred. They are unable to visually process the whole object. This will affect their ability to read facial expressions, as well as their ability to focus when watching films or developing skills in art and design.

The paper is too bright – this dyslexic trait is often found in children with a diagnosis of ASD. The glare from a white page makes the print difficult to see, thus difficult to read. Some autistic children also complain of the print moving on the page, or not being able to determine straight lines when looking at the text.

Poor depth perception – many autistic children cannot determine how close or far away an object is and will have difficulty telling if an object is moving towards them. This will pose problems in PE when throwing and catching is required, as well causing them to bump into others who are moving around.

Sound

“If a teacher is just talking, I won’t be focusing. I can’t listen to people speaking for more than a few seconds before I lose focus. I don’t have a filter that says ‘listen’. It’s very frustrating. I will drift off into my head. Before I know it I have drifted off for 20 minutes.” Sam, ASD

Overload of spoken information – some autistic learners can only process spoken information for a few moments before they become overloaded with speech and lose focus. This will pose problems in lessons which rely on the teacher’s oral delivery, debate and conversation.

Distracted or disturbed by external noise – many autistic children cannot focus on speech if there is a lot of external noise. This also causes a loss of concentration and focus. If the external noise is making them feel anxious, they may sit with their hands over their ears, or rely on the self-soothing action of rocking.

Poor auditory memory – it is common for autistic learners to instantly forget what has just been said to them. They may appear to be listening, but if you ask them to repeat what you have said they will recount just one or two words or phrases. Again, this will have a great impact on their ability to achieve in auditory-based activities such as languages.

Taste

“I am a picky eater and I do feel bad about this, but I am willing to eat generic meals like pasta and pizza. I can’t tell the difference between a mixture of flavours. I prefer tastes to be separated. I am a fan of pizza. I like the routine of eating the sections.” Sam, ASD

Restricted food choice – it is common for the autistic child to eat the same foods at the same time every day. This may be routine-driven, but may also be a result of over-sensitivity to tastes and textures. Restricted food choices can result in them going hungry rather than trying new tastes. It has been well documented that hunger has a negative impact on a child’s ability to concentrate in class.

Putting things in the mouth – it is common to see an autistic learner chew the sleeves of his or her school jumper. This is a consequence of having an imbalance with touch. By putting things in their mouth they are relying on the more sensitive nature of their tongue to feel a range of textures.

Touch

“I am physically sensitive. I hate people touching me. I absolutely hate people touching my hair. I am very sensitive to pain. I had tantrums when I was young related to physical sensitivities. I used to cry when I had my hair washed.” Sam, ASD

Over-sensitive to pain – many autistic learners are over-sensitive to pain and even light knocks or scrapes can lead to a meltdown. It is also common for them to dislike the feel of water in a shower, as well as having their hair washed and brushed. If they are not being guided at home, it may be necessary for a teacher to suggest a routine regarding washing and brushing their hair. This may seem a difficult conversation to have, but most autistic learners will not be offended and will take the advice literally.

Over-sensitive to clothes – many ASD learners look a certain way because they will not get their hair cut, or wear particular clothes. They feel very uncomfortable wearing certain fabrics, or clothes that are too tight, or too small. Looser fitting clothes, short sleeves and soft fabrics make a difference. If the school uniform is particularly coarse, it is a good idea to suggest washing it several times, or buying used clothes from the second-hand uniform sale.

Smell

“I had a tantrum in the street when there was an overwhelming smell of fish.” Zak, Asperger’s syndrome

“I have a really bad sense of smell. My mum has always told me when to wash, otherwise I forget.” Callum, Asperger’s syndrome

Over-sensitive to smell – if an ASD learner is over-sensitive to smell, aromas of food from the school canteen may be repulsive. This will affect their ability to concentrate in class and in extreme circumstances make them sick.

Under-sensitive to smell – not being able to recognise smells can affect personal hygiene when the autistic learner hits puberty. If it is clear that they are not following rules of personal hygiene, it is only fair to implement a routine for them regarding daily washing and using deodorant.

Body awareness

“I hated drama a lot because I can’t fake a movement if that’s not my intention and I really don’t like dance. I find it difficult to move with a rhythm. Other people know how to move their bodies but I don’t and that’s really strange.” Sam, ASD

Poor balance and faking movements – if an autistic learner dislikes practical subjects, it is easy to assume that they are struggling with being imaginative, or moving away from literal thinking. However, they may also be struggling with body awareness and manipulation. Many find it very difficult to produce movements that they do not consider their own. They may have poor balance, or a stiff gait, and will often struggle to learn choreography. This will make subjects such as dance, drama and PE physically very difficult for them.

Conclusion

The self-soothing behaviours such as rocking, spinning, swaying and fidgeting are often called “stims” and are often a result of sensory imbalance or dysfunction. If, as teachers, we can learn and identify the sensory difficulties experienced by our autistic learners, we may be able to get to the root of the problem and avoid them “stimming” in class.

Often, older learners on the autistic spectrum are able to tell you clearly what their sensory imbalances are and just a little prior thought and planning can help them suffer less anxiety and avoid unwanted behaviours in class.

  • Kristina Symons is head of learning support at Sydenham High School, an all-through school in south London and a member of the Girls’ Day School Trust.


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