By: Carmen Willings
Updated June 9, 2019
Students with visual impairments, along with students with other sensory impairments, often perceive information inaccurately or seek addition sensory input in order to focus or calm themselves. Poor sensory processing can make it difficult for a student to perform functional and academic tasks.
Students behaviors can provide clues to sensory-processing problems. Students may react too much (hyper-) or too little (hypo-) to various sensations. The goal is to provide an environment that will help the student become better at interpreting and organizing sensory information. The first step is to identify the type of sensory information the student is seeking. In general, students who react too little need an alerting program, while those who react too much to stimuli need a calming environment.
Tactual is the information received by touch including sensitivity to light touch, pressure, pain, and temperature. Activities that involve a firm, sustained touch tend to help soothe and calm students while activities involving light and brisk touching of body parts are more alerting. Many students may resist getting their hands dirty or touching a variety of materials. Encourage gradual exposure to a variety of textures and messy experiences with the goal of lengthening the experience and range of textures the student will touch and explore. Other students may appear lethargic or desire to touch everything. Perform alerting activities for the student such as tickling the arms or back and neck to alert the child. Encourage the student to wash their face and dry it to help alert them.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks tactual input include: twirling hair, drumming fingers, rubbing various fabrics, fidget toys to stretch, wiggle and twist, hugs, playing with textures (sand, rice, beans, shaving cream, finger paint, pudding, whipped cream, play-doh, clay, theraputty, or goop) or hiding objects in textures, hand massages, or hold toys or massagers that vibrate.
Proprioceptive is the information about the relative positions of parts of the body. This information comes through sensations arising in the muscles, joints, ligaments, and receptors associated with the bones. Consider giving the student a medium to heavy weight backpack to wear while walking.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks tactual input include: snuggling in quilts, sitting in a beanbag chair, cracking knuckles, jiggling/crossing legs, sitting on legs, heavy workload activities, pushing, pulling, tug-o-war, wall pushes, and monkey bars, take a "power walk", wheelbarrow walk, crawl or climb, or do wall push-ups. Consider placing a beanbag chair in a quiet area for the student to use.
Visual is the information received through the eyes. Visual input that is bland or monotonous tends to be calming. Students that seek a calm environment may benefit from dimming the lights or working in a cubicle or corralled area. Visual input that is bright and high in contrast or reflective tends to be alerting. These students may prefer video games, neon colors and fluorescent lights.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks visual input include: gazing at painted fingernails, and rings; flipping through magazines; watch fish in a fish tank; watch "oil and water" toys. Minimize visual clutter as they can be visually distracting and may add to disorganization.
Gustatory is the information received through the tongue/lips. Closely tied to the sense of smell. Possible activities to help the student who seeks gustatory input include: chewing flavored toothpicks, sucking on candy (sour will alert), chewing gum, drink a milkshake, crunch or suck on ice pieces, chew on coffee swizzle sticks, take slow deep breathes. The student can also be encouraged to suck, swallow and breathe in coordination to self regulate, calm and focus.
Auditory is the information received through the ears. Sounds that are rhythmic, soft, and constant are calming. Sounds that are loud and variable are alerting. For a student who is easily distracted by loud noises, use soft and calm talking to focus the student's attention. Play soft music in the background to calm the student or allow them to wear ear protectors or headphones to buffer the noise.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks auditory input include humming of a humidifier, soft whir of a fan or whistling, tapping a pencil on a surface, playing background music or music on an iPod or other music recording device. Consider placing a plush area rug or soft carpet in a quiet area of the room where the student can go to retreat.
Vestibular is the information received through receptors in the inner ear that enables us to detect motion, especially acceleration and deceleration. Closely tied to the visual system. Slow, repetitive, rhythmic activities along with heavy work with sustained muscle tension tend to be soothing and calming while activities that involve moving quickly, spinning, and changing direction, speed, or body position tend to be more alerting. For the student who cannot sit still in their chair or frequently rocks in the chair, encourage frequent changes in position by having the student complete small errands. Consider having a rocking chair available or allow the student to sit on a large therapy ball.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks vestibular input include rocking in chairs, complete work while sitting on a therapy ball, twist on bar stools or office chair, swing, move on a scooter board, roll on floor, balance on a balance board, jump on a trampoline, carrying a heavy box, or pushing a lunch cart, sliding board play, roll on floor to target, bounce on ball, or dance to music. Consider hanging a hammock, swinging chair or porch swing in an area where the student can go to relax.
Olfactory is the information received through the nose. Examples of soothing smells include vanilla and baked bread. Distinctive smells tend to be more alerting such as lemon and peppermint.
Possible activities to help the student who seeks olfactory input include: wear perfume or body spray, provide scratch and sniff stickers, or use pleasant room sprays. Avoid aversive smells if the student is nauseated by smells and keep the student away from smells that negatively affect them.
If the student is hyper-aroused or shows an increased activity level, the following activities may help calm the student down:
Sensory Learning Kit
This kit, available from APH, is for use in the development of skills for learners with the most significant challenges. It contains sensory items to increase curiosity and develop skills. My favorite item in this kit is by far the Power Select. It allows the user to connect a switch to activate items plugged into the device. You can adjust the settings to adjust the time the item is activated to meet the student's unique needs.
This presentation provides instructional and communication strategies for working with students with severe and profound disabilities who are functioning between a birth to two-year-old level. It also provides suggestions for setting up sensory environments and creating adapted materials, so the student has activities to interact with no matter what position or area of the room they are in. I share lightbox activities and how to use iPads and computers as instructional tools. Finally, I share functional literacy activities that embed sensory experiences that you can create with your students. The activities are appropriate for the classroom but can also be used during distance learning. This presentation is packed full of activities you can begin using immediately with your students!
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