When the world of sensory is all around you, it is hard to see the sensory through the senses (the forest through the trees). Optimal processing is seamless; all input is integrated without any issues. The environment gives out so many clues, we have learned to adjust to each subtle bit of information that we don’t think about it. We don’t know that our minds are processing thousands of pieces of information every second, even while sleeping. Just as I sit here, the furnace turns on and I know what the sound is but I do not become alarmed or aware of it consciously. A part of my brain registers that the furnace is on, heat is coming through the vents, and I can relax knowing the temperature in my house is being regulated just as my body temperature is.
The problem is that not everybody does this so smoothly. That same sound I hear, the heater turning on, can create an alarm in others. The auditory system is not only the sounds that enter the ear, but what the brain does with the tones, patterns and pitches of the information it receives. This is auditory processing, the sounds entering your ears and traveling to your brain and being processed every second. How many sounds around us do we pay attention to? We have learned to distinguish what is background noise and what we are consciously aware of and react to. When in a classroom, we know to listen to the teacher, get our instructions and important information and cues. We tend to listen for a bell to tell us time for lunch, and are alarmed by the fire drills.
What is not normal and creates a domino of problems is not tuning out the unimportant. What happens when the teacher’s voice is competing with all the little sounds? Paper rustling, pencils writing, zippers sipping, shoes clunking, clocks clicking and the buzz of electricity from heaters to equipment all at the same time. It would be hard to know what is important and what is not. Is the sound of the heater a clue that the environment is going to change? Would you be thinking about your clothing and being comfortable or would you be trying to physically move from the sound so you can concentrate on the sentence you were writing?
What instructions did the teacher give again? Did you hear something about writing and being done, then about art class? It is difficult to fill in the blanks at school when a child’s mind is trying desperately to filter out what his brain is detecting. The average classroom relies heavily on oral communication, always in competition for attention from a child’s over processing mind. It is not uncommon fora child with SPD to only process 50% what is being said by the teacher even in a relatively normal classroom. So a lot of the time is spent trying to figure out what he should be doing. An adult would most likely ask the teacher for the instructions for we have been taught this is the logical and correct response to the problem. Who said the child knows it is a problem to hear only bits of the information? This is normal for him.
There are ways to get information that avoid more auditory stimuli, that does not include asking the teacher what he should be doing. A child might find it helpful to get up from his seat and look at classmates’ work to see if that fills in the missing information. Maybe the information could be found somewhere around the room, the teacher has written instructions on the board before. What about searching through a desk to see if you can find the workbook or a previous worksheet that could be a clue to current activity? Somehow during all this information searching it is easy to focus on all the other information your brain is trying to process. A child could want to know what the conversation is about in the hallway even though he is more than 20 feet away. It is easy for a teacher to see these behaviors as off task, distracted and inattentive, leading to frustration and a poor opinion of the child.
Teachers who are aware of a child having processing problems can easily attend to this child at the first sign of a processing glitch. What would it look like for a teacher who is knowledgeable in Sensory Processing and its disorders to interact with her students throughout the day? I see a lot of eye contact, simple hand gestures and the ability to have a variety of ways to communicate for optimal information exchange. A classroom can be set up for this, teachers just need to be given the information and the tools to do it. Children are neurological worlds of wonder and it is possible to incorporate all of the senses to learn, and to love learning. It would be even better to teach when the senses are engaged in productive learning. School is not just about the information, but processing the information and being able to generate that knowledge into a resource to build on.
Just as we must learn to hold our heads up before moving onto sitting, neurologically we cannot understand information until we can process it. Children with SPD deal with more than spelling and writing and math facts. All children’s brains are processing their external and internal environments all the time, some just organize it better than others. When it comes down to it, it is about organizing the information. When one or one hundred bits of information are given to our brains, we must organize each bit of information. Is this bit of information important? Have we heard/seen/smelled/felt/tasted this information before and in what context was that and what is the context now? Our brains like patterns! I imagine the binary system of computer data. Each action of the computer is a process from the color on the screen and the flashing curser to the file saving activities. We knowthat if our computer’s processing is off even a bit, it creates a lot of problems. One simple wrong 0 or 1 won’t allow for the next step in the process, which creates frustration in the user . . . as does the frustration in a child who’s processing of information is not being organized correctly. The processing in a child’s brain can start to back up and it is difficult to deal with any more input at that point.
The behavior we see in a child who is dealing with processing unorganized information is a symptom of internal problems, not a conscious choice to misbehave. Our computers don’t choose to stop connecting to the internet or stop communicating to the printer. Only those who have studied SPD understand the cues children show when they are having processing problems. It is like that IT person in an office building who is the only one who can suddenly make your computer start printing when you’ve tried over and over again to hit the ‘print’ button. It is the occupational therapist who knows which way to spin a child, and when to roll them in a mat or when to sit quietly with a brush and tender touches. Parents rely on these experts to teach us the cues and the treatments to help our child. Just as the computer does not tell you what is wrong and how to fix it before it creates problems, nor does a child who is working hard neurologically to figure it out before he melts down. He just knows when he is not alright. The books for SPD are as vast and varied as the computer programming books one can find.
The best thing about being human is that we can learn to communicate with time and compassion. We can help a child understand how they are feeling, express what they want to do and to start the communication before the frustration explodes. The ideas are varied, the experts well trained and I look forward to sharing some easy resources to help your kids be more aware of themselves and their needs.
It is not just about accommodation, we must empower them to succeed.