• Dr. Patricia Cook

Sensory Processing Needs for Special Needs Students in Online Settings

As teachers transition to online teaching, many are lining up videos, games, and other fun activities to make screen time with students more engaging. However, for some students with sensory processing issues, teachers need to be aware of individual needs to ensure that over-and-under stimulation does not interfere with learning. A 2009 study found that 1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that make it hard to learn and function in school. While often seen in students with Autism, these concerns can also be found with ADHD, OCD and other developmental delays- or with no other diagnosis at all (1).


Some examples of characteristics of sensory processing issues that many manifest in online meetings are:


*Lack of eye contact or inability to hold attention to screens or faces

*Intolerance to bright lights or noises

*Fidgeting, inability to sit still

*Distraction by background or noises that others may not hear (2).


Watch a short film which shows you what it could feel like to experience sensory overload (3).

Warning: this film contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises.



Tools and Adaptations for Sensory Processing Issues are available for teachers when interacting with students online. Teachers should always conference with parents and review IEP plans prior to an online class meeting to set up supports for students with sensory processing issues. Together parents and teachers can come up with a plan for this new kind of "class time", and to develop specific supports that meet the students individual needs. Some students may need less stimuli and others may actual need more sensory activities provided, in order to successfully participate in class.


Some examples of supports that might be included in a plan are:


*At home seating modifications: Students may need to sit on a cushion, an exercise ball, or stand during the online lesson in order to "get the wiggles out" and maintain attention on the teacher on the screen. These should be arrangements that the stduent regularly uses during school time at home. You do not want to give them a new sitting option that they have never used before to try out for a video call, because it could end up being more of a distraction than a help. You want to have the parents try out seating options at another time where they are less under pressure, and then use what is comfortable and familiar to support engagement while doing a class online.


*Decreased Environmental Stimulation: Students may want to wear headphones to only focus on the online class audio and not hear other distractions in the home. Teachers may want to partner with parents in helping them identify a place in the home where the students may not have visual distractions or other stimuli coming in from other family members or activities happening in the home. If students are unwilling to speak up in an online class due to the change in environmental stimuli, or because they are distracted by other students in the class, you may want to show students how to respond in a group chat bar or privately to the teacher using other digital messaging tools.


*Fidgets/Manipulatives/Weighted Items: Some students may be better able to focus in an online class if they have access to fidgets or tactile materials such as clay, silly putty, sandpaper/fuzzy items, or other small tools. Fidgets must fit in their hand, be quiet, and stay with them; (not ever to be thrown across the room). Other students who have difficulty staying seated for longer periods of learning may appreciate weighted lap pads or scheduled movement breaks on regular intervals during the lesson. Whatever the tool or manipulative is, the teacher should make the arrangements with the parents before the scheduled video conference to decide what tools or manipulatives the student may need, so the student has everything they need handy at the time of the class.


*Increased Sensory Backgrounds and Concrete Items on teacher screen:

Other students may need the teacher to provide increased visual/auditory stimuli through audio/visual tools in order to keep student attention on the screen. Some students may respond to interesting virtual backgrounds, or the teacher having a stuffed animal join them on screen. Occupational Therapist, Leslie Jefferson explains, "The goal is to have the student look at the screen and to listen to what the teacher is saying. Teachers need to be aware that some kids may not be able to do both (listening and looking) at the same time, but if they can keep their attention to the visual AND the auditory cues (even if is one or the other), then the students can get the benefits out of the lesson online" (4).


As students get more practice with using online tools for meeting with teachers, their comfort with the stimuli in the new setting may increase, and they may be able to show growth in areas that may have been a challenge in other settings. For students who continue to have negative responses to meeting online with teachers, due to sensory processing issues, you may want to look at adjusting the setup/stimuli of class meetings, and look for additional distance learning options that are a "just-right fit" for the students needs. The key to success in this setting for students is communication with families, documenting things tried and being flexible and willing to try new things.


Works Cited:

1. https://www.spdstar.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/Sensory_Over-Responsivity_in_Elementary_School_Prevalence_and_Social_Emotional_Correlates_2009.pdf

2. https://childmind.org/article/sensory-processing-faq/

3. https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/sensory-world.aspx

4. Interview with Occupational Therapist, Leslie Jefferson, (M.Ed., OTR/L) from Epic Charter Schools, on 4/3/2020


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