Sensory Processing and School Underachievement

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 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: 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


  1. Anonymous7:30 PM

    What timing on this article.

    I just finished reading an article on a similar topic by Marlo Payne Thurman from the CoMeD 2009 Regional Conference.

    The whole idea of cognitive energy to keep input, arousal and output in balance is interesting.

    Thanks for including this. Lynette

  2. Hello:
    First of all, I am very impressed with your blog.
    The information is useful and concise.

    I am dyslexic and hyperlexic and I have chosen your blog on sensory issues to share some thoughts. When I was diagnosed as dyslexic at age 45 (twenty years ago) I was told there nothing to be done to help me.
    After a period of being really angry and frustrated I decided to be an optimist and went exploring. It became clear that the reason they told me there was nothing they could offer me came from the fact that I could do what dyslexics can't do which is read and sound out words and have a good vocubularly - the definition of a dyslexic. Yet, I didn't comprehend what I was reading.

    So I began looking for other advice. I wanted to unlayer the confusion I felt around reading. It was suggested that I might also have synesthesia (experiencing on or more senses at the same time.) Well, it turned out to be true and somewhat explained why I can walk into a room and know, from my senses, who is telling the truth, who is unhappy, etc. etc. A valuable skill I might add.

    It was recommended that I become more familiar with my individual senses. The technique offered was: visit a museum, stand in front of painting and ask the question: If that painting had a smell what would it be, then on to seeing and then hearing and then tasting and then feeling etc. I found the task quite exhilarating and tiring. I went twice a week for about a year. And I integrated this kind of exploration walking down the street or at the opera, or a new piece of classical music etc. The end result was I discovered that some of the confusion I thought came from dyslexia came from the fact that my senses were clashing. And I discovered they were giving me messages.
    Knowing more about my senses has been an important step to unlayering confusion around my reading.

    More recently I was rediagnosed and learned the reason there were no solutions for my dyslexia was:
    I had found them, mostly, by myself and
    the more accurate diagnosis is: hyperlexia, meaning comprehension is the issue. Can you believe that I had grade three reading comprehension skils and I went through Yale with that!!!!!
    I have taken steps to correct this situation. If you are interested you can read more on my website:

    Thanks so much for all the effort you are putting into your blog. I will pass it on to others.

    Ann Farris