Adapting Instruction for Learners With Sensory Challenges

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  • 0:09 Sensory Exercise
  • 1:33 Seonsory Integeration
  • 2:37 Characteristics
  • 4:04 Hyper & Hyporeactive
  • 6:00 Adapting the Classroom
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

In this lesson, we will discuss the general characteristics of children with sensory dysfunction and how teachers can adapt the classroom environment to accommodate these students.

Sensory Exercise

Here's a little exercise for you: stand on one foot, pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. Can you do it? We are all familiar with our five senses of smell, hearing, taste, touch and sight, but in order to do this exercise, you will have to use three lesser known senses: movement (vestibular), body awareness (proprioception) and skin sensitivity (tactile). Our senses take in information and relay it to the brain, which then organizes that sensory information. For example, you were able to keep your balance when you stood on one foot because your brain told your muscles in your other leg to stay strong and keep your body upright.

Sometimes, the flood of sensory information become overwhelming and is too much for the brain to organize. This traffic jam of information is also known as sensory dysfunction or a sensory processing error. A sensory processing error only becomes a sensory dysfunction when the dysfunction significantly impacts one or more area of functioning. For example, the ability to learn is one area of functioning that might be impacted. A student might not be able to sit still, listen to the teacher and do his or her class work at the same time.

Sensory Integration

At this very moment you are experiencing sensory integration. Your brain is using the information about sounds, smells, tastes, sight, textures and movements in an organized way to determine what is happening inside your body and in your environment. For example, you are hearing my voice, you are looking at the screen and you feel your chair. You are also able to filter out distracting or unimportant sensory information so you are able to concentrate on this lesson.

Dr. A. Jean Ayres first developed the theory of sensory integration.
A Jean Ayres Sensory Integration

The theory of sensory integration was first developed by Dr. A. Jean Ayres. She defined sensory integration as the neurological process that organizes sensation from one's own body and surroundings, making it possible to use the body effectively within a given environment. According to Dr. Ayres, many children have difficulty in school not because of the curriculum or their intelligence but because their brains are not correctly organizing sensory information.

Characteristics of Sensory Challenges

Typically, sensory integration develops during childhood. For example, an infant cries at the sound of a barking dog. As the infant's brain grows and develops, he or she learns that the sound of the barking dog will not lead to injury, and thus the infant no longer reacts to the barking dog by crying. However, for some children, sensory integration does not develop as it should.

When there is a dysfunction in sensory integration, the brain isn't able to integrate and organize the sensory information that it receives. Characteristics of sensory integration dysfunction include hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to any of the senses. For example, if a student is particularly sensitive to ambient noise, he or she could be said to have hypersensitive hearing. Other examples include being over stimulated, language delays, decreased coordination, visual deficits and distractibility. Some of these characteristics may also occur in people with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and/or learning disabilities.

Because there are so many different ways in which a dysfunction in sensory integration is displayed, it is not possible to have a single list describing all of them. However, it is possible to describe general characteristics.

Hyperreactive and Hyporeactive

There are two general types of sensory integration dysfunction that a teacher may encounter: hyperreactive and hyporeactive.

In order to illustrate this point, imagine that your senses are on a dial, with the zero being no input and the ten being too much input. If your sense of vision, for example, was set to zero on the dial, you would be considered to be visually impaired, otherwise known as being blind. Continuing with this metaphor, let's say that a five on the dial is what is considered the typical level of input, a ten would be hyperreactive and a one would be hyporeactive.

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