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A special note to teachers

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, where you can find the latest research on sensory processing disorder, the hidden disability of SPD affects 1 child in 20. That means you are likely to have at least one child in your classroom whose sensory issues are significant enough to interfere with his learning, social development, and functioning within the classroom and the school environment. This child is likely to:

  • Be male rather than female, although there are plenty of girls with SPD
  • Have another condition such as ADHD or autism, although not necessarily (80-94 percent of children on the autism spectrum have sensory processing disorder according to studies cited in Raising a Sensory Smart Child)
  • Be developmentally delayed or have a learning disability or “learning difference” (most children with IEPs have sensory issues to some degree)
  • Have been adopted from a foreign country, born prematurely, or subjected to many medical procedures as an infant
  • Be in need of a special diet to address food intolerances such as to gluten (found in wheat and some other grains) or casein (found in dairy products), although many children with SPD have no food intolerances or allergies

    The child with SPD is also likely to be:

    • Highly distractible and yet hyperfocused at times, too
    • Impulsive, even to the point of endangering herself unwittingly
    • Clumsy or awkward physically
    • Hyper or lethargic and unable to easily shift into a higher or lower state of energy and alertness
    • Anxious, particularly about new experiences or transitions, or everyday sensations the rest of us take for granted
    • Gifted, even if she also has a learning disability
    • Bullied, or likely to bully others because his social skills are lacking
    • Socially awkward (The child may also be having difficulty reading social cues, indicating a possible autism spectrum disorder. Learn more about autism and its symptoms).
    • Young for his age
    • Highly disorganized with time, possessions, and assignments, and in need of much support for handling homework

    Children with sensory processing disorder have much in common, but each has his or her own specific sensory difficulties. Accommodations that work beautifully for one child with SPD may not work at all for another child with SPD.

    While no one can become an expert on SPD overnight, you’ll find helpful information on many aspects of sensory processing disorder (also known as sensory integration dysfunction) on this site and in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping your Child with Sensory Processing Issues. You’ll want to check out the chapter on schools as well as the sensory smarts at school page on this website. You and the parent or caretaker of the child with SPD can make a terrific team if you both share information, strategies, and information. Please keep in mind these 5 key points about SPD at school:

    1. SPD is a hidden disorder. What looks like “bad,” “disobedient,” “defiant,” or “willful” behavior may actually be a primitive panic response coming from fear and anxiety caused by the disorder. An everyday sensation such as a fire alarm or a light touch from a classmate may be terrifying to a child with sensory processing disorder. A child who is discombobulated by the confusing sensations in his body may be aggressive or withdrawn (the “fight-or-flight” panic response).

    2. Kids with sensory processing disorder may be very lacking in self-awareness. They may not know why they’re having such trouble adjusting to a school environment, making friends, or listening to the teacher. You, the parents, and others on the team helping this child may have to give him a lot of support and direction to help him develop sensory smarts and self-awareness.

    3. A school OT may be a terrific resource. Not all school OTs (occupational therapists) are trained and experienced in working with sensory processing issues, but many are. Please consider recommending an OT evaluation for any child you suspect has SPD. A sensory smart OT can set up a school sensory diet of activities and accommodations to help the child function better in the classroom, the gym, the lunchroom, the playground, etc. If your school does not have an OT, a private OT may be able to help. (See the page on How to Find an OT)

    4. Parents may not know or be open to learning that their child has SPD. Many parents are defensive and scared about their child’s “differentness” but a parent of a child with SPD knows “something is up with this child.” By listening, sharing, and advising them on the resources available to them, you may be able to help the parents help their child with SPD to succeed.

    5. EVERY child in your classroom can benefit from the accommodations and activities that are often part of a sensory diet at school. You may want to consider incorporating sensory breaks and movement, as well as multisensory learning, into your classroom’s routine. You might be surprised by how much more focused, calm, and alert all your pupils are as a result!

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