Over the weekend, I was reading an article about students with disabilities in college, and I was struck by the conclusions that students with hidden disabilities had much poorer outcomes than students with obvious physical impairments (blindness, physical disability). The conclusions had a ring of truth. Disabilities that occur often without obvious physical signs, like sensory processing disorders or dyslexia, are often harder to 'prove', harder to qualify for accommodations, and often faulted as being due to laziness, poor effort or motivation, or retardation.
Sensory processing disorders are probably among the most common reasons children underachieve in school, although they are often not formally recognized because of the lack of a definitive diagnostic standard like a blood test or physical sign, and fluctuations and in behaviors that might be seen. In truth, sensory processing behaviors result from a wide range of causes, from visual or auditory problems, delayed (like premature birth) or abnormal development (genetic diseases), from inherited family conditions, or autism spectrum disorders. In the last few years, more progress has been made on understanding understanding how sensory processing behaviors may arise, but clinical professionals and teachers may still be most familiar with severe aversive fight-or-flight reactions or environmental sensitivities. But sensory processing difficulties contribute to much more. In fact, understanding more about the effects of SPD on school performance will help more parents and teachers know how to help these kids learn better.
The following are some of the most commonly related school problems we see in the setting of sensory processing disorders:
- slow or poor handwriting (poor sensory-motor coordination for writing, problems organizing and selecting what to say)
- poor work output in general (effects on decision-making, sequencing, and planning)
- slowed processing of information (hard to filter out noise, longer to find and organize information)
- problems multi-tasking (spd kids and adults are uni-taskers)
- easy distractibility
- time blindness
- 'inattentiveness' in class, missing instructions
If you look at the list, it's easy to see that output takes a big hit with SPD. These kids are often quite bright, but they struggle expressing the full depth of their comprehension or understanding. Everything may take a lot longer because visual recognition may not be immediate, sounds within words may not be as clear, and it may be harder to select and prioritize information going in and going out.
In one classroom study, teachers were found to wait only about 3 seconds for an student to answer a question, before moving on to another. If the teacher was told a student might be slow to respond and wait longer, they still only waited about 6 seconds. What about the student who takes 10 or 20 seconds? Not much chance to participate in class discussions...at least not if the teacher doesn't find a way to give them more time, like assigning several questions to students to answer, then going back through the list - so the child with SPD has a longer period (while the other students are in the process of answering) to retrieve the information and organize what they want to say.
Research into the consequences of sensory processing mismatches is still a number of steps away from the classroom, but what information can be obtained can be helpful. At right from a study looking at experimentally-induced sensory (proprioceptive) mismatches, researchers found that motor imagery maps were distorted in response to the change in position sense, and motor reaction times were delayed.
If only the complexity of brain processing could be 'seen' - then it would be easier for us to understand their struggles and we would be more conscious of giving these kids more time. In the big scheme of things, more time for development will help them, not hurt them. Most will do well if strive to educate them at an appropriate pace - and keep them from becoming defeated in their early years. These kids are often bright and quite analytical. The problems are often at the perceptual level, not at the level of higher order thinking or metacognition. Also although they may not be able to multi-task well, they can often unitask quite well. Though answers may not come quickly, when they do answer they are often right because their long term memories are often outstanding.
** On November 12th and 13th please join us for a 2-day Sensory Processing conference on the Internet with Lindsey Biel of Raising a Sensory Smart Child. For more information: http://sensorypro.blogspot.com You'll be able to attend, ask questions, and chat with other participants online through your home computer. Proceeds will benefit our daughter's health fund. The conference will also be recorded and available online for 3 weeks afterward **
Proprioceptive mismatch changes motor imagery and delays reaction time pdf
Complex sensory involvement in perceptual decision making