Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition where the brain has difficulty processing the information it receives from the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell.
Some individuals with the condition may be extremely sensitive to stimuli: for instance the way that clothes feel, or certain smells and sounds. Some may be under-sensitive and seek sensory stimulation such as chewing fingers or other objects, banging their heads or spinning, licking or touching. Sometimes, they can hurt themselves and be unaware they have done so.
SPD can exist on its own or in tandem with other conditions, such as Autism spectrum condition or Down’s syndrome. If someone has it, they aren’t going to grow out of it, but the way that it is expressed may change. They will hopefully find ways to cope.
If you have someone in your class with sensory issues, you are likely to know about it. I can think of three children who ate all the pencils and even a paperclip once, which involved a trip to A&E – Mrs Ellis never got over the shock. The children who didn’t seem to know where their bodies started and ended are burned into my teaching memory.
Talk to parents
Parents are likely to know if a child has problems with clothing, but an overwhelmed child or young person is not difficult to spot. Anxiety is likely to feature highly in their life experience. Talk to parents to find out what they do to help their child.
Occupational therapists are on hand to help, too. Bearing in mind the scarcity of multi-agency professionals in mainstream schools, I recommend you pump them for as much information as possible and don’t let them leave the premises until they have given you every information sheet in their bag.
For some, waking up and settling down the senses is key. Riding a bike or a scooter to school will help, as will carrying a weighted bag and doing jobs such as taking down the chairs and cleaning the whiteboard or chalk board. This is called “heavy work”.
Keeping the classroom tidy, calm and paying attention to displays, as well as the use of fidget toys – Blu Tack is my favourite – will contribute to success.
Schools can make sure their uniforms are easy to take on and off, as well as removing itchy, constraining fabrics and designs.
You’ll never be able to completely manage SPD, but there are barriers to learning caused by the condition that teachers and schools can remove simply, cheaply and quickly, as well as benefiting their own workload.
Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust, which works with schools and teachers on SEND. She is the Tes SEND specialist, and author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers