Parents of children who do not have SPD, or teachers who have never experienced a student with the disorder, may just think it is an elaborate excuse for bad behaviour. However, SPD is a real condition, with very real implications. One can distinguish between a behavioural disorder and SPD by considering the child's reaction to sensory input (Barton, 2010). Behavioural outbursts in children with SPD are directly related to the way their brain processes sensory input.
The child with SPD can exhibit a wide variety of behavioural manifestations. Kranowitz suggests documenting behaviour, keeping track of a child's "good times", and "bad times", and looking for patterns and clues that might suggest why a child is acting in a certain way (1998). It is important that we remember that all behaviour is communication, and act as "detectives" trying to understand how the student with SPD perceives reality.
Outburts, meltdowns and other negative behaviours can be the result of various sensory input. Examples include:
- unwillingness to put on outerwear for recess because they feel funny (Tactile)
- unwillingness to eat in classroom with others because of bad smells (Gustatory)
- outbursts at center time because of too much sensory stimuli (Auditory/Visual)
- reluctance to participate in PE for fear of being touched by someone else (Tactile)
- unwillingness to participate in certain games in PE due to lack of balance or body awareness (Vestibular/Proprio)
- unwillingness to complete certain Art projects that require getting hands messy (Tactile)
- ignorance of verbal instructions (Auditory)
- appearance of boredom or disinterest/poor posture (Tactile/Proprio)
Reading the list above, if we don't have knowledge of SPD, all of the examples appear to be about a child who refuses to do something because he/she just doesn't want to. Knowing how SPD affects children at school gives us a whole new perspective. The above examples are not a matter of stubbornness, but of an inability to complete a task due to the way the brain processes sensory information.
The child who would not go out for recess likely has tactile sensitivity. For most of us, we can ignore the funny feeling when our pants bunch up in our boots, or if out socks get wet, but for this student, it is impossible. A strategy in this case, would be to help the child to communicate what the problem is, and remind him/her to ask for help. If necessary, step in and assist the child in getting ready for recess, tucking pants in etc. Once we have recognized this tactile sensitivity, we can anticipate it the next time, and watch for other similar sensitivites.
For the student who won't stop put everything in his mouth, even when told not to, offer gum to chew on, or a chew topper for his pencil, rather than simply saying over and over, "stop chewing on this or that."
For a student with outburts due to olfactory sensitivity, provide a cotton ball with essential oil on it to eliminate odours from other students' lunches. If this does not help, allow the child to eat in another room.
In each of these cases, it is important to remember that the child is not just acting out for no reason. Rather, they are trying to communciate that they cannot cope with the sensory stimuli around them.
Figure 13: Chew Stixx.
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Figure 14: Wild Orange Essential Oil