In order to support our learners/kiddos with special sensory needs, we must first understand that sensory integration provides a strong foundation for higher order thinking, complex learning, and behaviour regulation. For neurotypical individuals, sensory integration occurs with ease and without awareness. For our learners and kiddos with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities or comorbidities, such as Developmental Disabilities, Cerebral Palsy, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, Rhett Syndrome, etc., this process requires a significant amount of effort and attention without any guarantee of success or precision.
As parents and teachers, we have to keep in mind that the sensory receptors in a neurodivergent person function differently; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch can be overwhelming and even, occasionally, painful. An environment that may seem everyday and safe to someone who is neurotypical, may seem threatening and absolutely painful to someone with a neurodivergence. This may cause them to act in a way anyone who is overwhelmed would; defending themselves from the world around them. This may manifest itself as hostility, aggression, or withdrawn behaviour, however it is solely a way to protect oneself from an environment where they feel unsafe (Notbohm 2005).
Sensory difficulties can impact the affected person's ability to absorb information, respond to requests, get involved in social situations, sports, writing, and maintain a state where they are calm and ready to learn. Parents, teachers, and researchers alike are still exploring and determining the various impacts and factors connected with sensory challenges surrounding neurodivergence. Research, anecdotal notes/observations, and personal accounts from individuals with autism and other neurological differences have assisted me in gaining important insight.
What Is Stimming?
Through sensory and emotional regulation, or in response to environmental stimuli/sensations, and through internal imbalances a person with a neurodivergence can become increasingly overloaded and overwhelmed, often resulting in anxiety and distress. In some instances, this may manifest as “flapping” of hands, in others it may be an increased moaning sound. Some individuals find rocking comforting, while others will try to remove every item of clothing or require deep pressure from a weighted vest, piece of clothing, or blanket in order to cope/comfort themselves. Regardless of how it manifests, all of these are ways in which an individual works to maintain a “modulated state” where it is optimal for learning and daily functioning, focus, and reduced behaviour (van Niekerk 2006). These behaviors are what we now call stimming.
How to Create a Support System at School for Your Neurodivergent Teen
In order to assist with modulating appropriate responses to sensory stimuli, occupation and/or physical therapists are often of great benefit. Parents, teachers, and all care providers can work together to find the best results and pathways for navigating a student’s sensory integration concerns.
Each school team, and any care provider service, should be equipped and trained to use a multitude of fun, play-based activities that support the students' learning needs, as well as serve their sensory exploration needs throughout their time in the program.
- Be aware of the sensory needs of students and minimize all possible issue that may reduce their function in the environment (ie. fluorescent lighting, loud voices/noises, low odour dry erase markers, no scents, no tags on clothing, etc.);
- The whistle of a gym teacher and the echoes in a busy lockers room may sound assaulting to a student who is sound sensitive - pairing the student with a teacher who is akin to not using their whistle and allowing them to dress elsewhere or when the locker room is empty will result in greater success in physical education class;
- Similarly, a student with a multitude of sensory needs may find somewhere everyday, such as a grocery store, to be a painful experience: bright fluorescent lighting, cash registers beeping, multiple voices talking, loud voices over the loudspeaker announcing specials, bread baking, meals cooking, meats being sliced, creaky carts, etc. While this is an everyday experience for many, for a person with neurodivergence, this could lead to a veritable breakdown due to sensory overload.
- Many individuals find standing close to each other difficult, this would need to be addressed when walking around the school or planning for field trips;
- Some people with neurodivergence, particularly those on the autism spectrum, may experience difficulty looking at you and listening at the same time (these two sensory inputs operate separately, and requesting an individual to utilize the two modalities at the same time can lead to sensory overload). If/when eye contact is required, allow the student to first gain control over their eye movements prior to speaking. They may still move their eyes after you begin to speak, however they are still listening;
- Highly decorated classrooms can be overstimulating and distracting for some individuals;
- Some students require extra time to process before transitioning to a new activity or space; PECS/picture symbols can assist with this. Likewise, students may need time to unwind after returning from a noisy space like a hallway or assembly (Bain 2019).
An Adult with Autism’s Perspective
It is important to remember that sensory needs and experiences are different for each person with a neurological difference. I had the pleasure of meeting a very gifted learner on the spectrum, Antonio Myers, from Washington, DC on the newest trend in social media, ClubHouse. We got to chatting and I asked him if he would share some of his experiences with his sensory needs growing up and now as an adult.
Antonio expressed that growing up, he did not experience many of the limiting sensory needs of his peers, other than not liking shiny things and an aversion to pears and bananas, “which make me queasy.” He stated that many of his sensory needs were of a socio-emotional nature in that, when he was young, people who were physically aggressive, unnecessarily competitive, or arrogant would be bothersome to him and he did not always understand why they were acting certain ways.
Antonio expressed that this aversion to such behaviours extends to his life today as well and includes vocal tones, such as loud/harsh tones and certain touch boundaries. However, the touch boundaries have more to do with people being fearful/hesitant of shaking his hand because of his autism rather than him not being comfortable with the gesture.
As an adult, Antonio’s inquisitive nature and intelligence has led him to go on to be valedictorian of both his high school and postsecondary institutions and states that he has, “grown to fall in love with his autism” (Myers 2021).
Behaviour Always Has a Root
A universal truth about behaviour is that it never comes out of nowhere. Regardless of how random or unprovoked a behaviour may seem, there is always a reason or trigger. Individuals, particularly those with a neurodivergence, do not make a conscious decision to throw a tantrum, harm someone/themselves, or act out of sorts.
The individuals with neurological differences that we know, love and serve would act appropriately if they could. They may simply lack the social cognition, sensory integrative abilities, or, in some cases, language capacity, to achieve it.
Triggers for behaviour are often clustered into four categories of function/reasoning:
- Sensory Needs (over or understimulated)
- Escape (to avoid a task or person)
- Attention (positive or negative attention seeking)
- Tangible (to obtain a concrete physical reward)
With this, I will leave you with one final thought. When the person with a neurodivergence in your life “acts out,” you can utilize the list above to assist you in helping to better determine the where and why’s, which will assist in better tracking behaviours. Most importantly however, know that you are NEVER alone. There is a wealth of resources, experts, mom groups, teacher groups, and so much more out there to call upon when you just need a moment to release and connect.
Leanne McGuirk | BA Hons, Min BFa, BEd, CRLA, OCT, OSCA, SFBT
I am a teacher/guidance counsellor/registered behaviour technician from Toronto, Ontario where I live with my two cats and I enjoy singing, crafts, music, and hiking.
I also run an afterschool/online tutoring and educational consulting business, Roots to Reading. Through a variety of educational and support services, I effectively prepare students and parents to become stronger learners and advocates.
- Bain, Kristin. “Tantrum. What’s the Big Deal.” Alphabee ABA Services. Autism Matters Magazine, Winter 2019 (V 19, N 1). https://www.alphabee.com/tantrum-whats-the-big-deal-about-reinforcement-anyway/
- Baron-Cohen, Simon Dr, Dr. Patrick Bolton. Autism: the facts. New York: Oxford, 2004
- Myers, Antonio. Interview: Toronto/Washington DC: May 12, 2021. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgBlog: anchor.fm/antonio-myers4
- Notbohm, Ellen. Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew. Arlington: Future Horizons, 2005.
- van Niekerk, Clarabelle, Liezl Venter. Understanding Sam. Erie, Pennsylvania: Skeezel Press, 2006.