Ear-defenders, Rocking Chairs and Fidget Toys…

Helping Children with Sensory Processing Needs

Children, like the preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder that I work with at Thursday’s Child Nursery School, may have difficulty processing sensory information and develop many extreme or repetitive behaviours that interfere with play and learning. Engrossed in how their bodies cope with touch, movement, balance, weight, sight, hearing, and taste, these children may engage in continuous movement, make noise, hide under tables, stare at lights, knock things over, chew things, or press against things. YouTube sensation, Carly Fleischmann, both nonverbal and impacted by Autism, has provided insight to us all by typing articulate and moving explanations of what it is like to have overwhelming sensory needs and how they impact on her behaviour.

In response to the question why children with Autism cover their ears, flap their hands, hum, and rock, Carly (2011) types, “It’s a way to drown out all sensory input that overloads us all at once. We create output to block input.”

To discover children’s unique sensory processing needs, we look at their behaviours to understand what they seek out and what they avoid. Our task is to help each child find coping strategies that allow him or her to participate in the program while their brains and nervous systems learn to integrate the new information.

“You don’t know what it feels to be me when you can’t sit still because it feels like a hundred ants are crawling up your legs.” (C. Fleischmann, 2011)

For children whose bodies tell them to keep moving, those compelling needs can be met by providing seats with wiggle-room, like rubber cushions or rocking chairs. Some children seek the soothing input of deep pressure to calm and organize themselves. They can be provided with weighted clothing, as prescribed by an occupational therapist, or weighted materials, without removing them from the activity.

“Our brains are wired differently. We take in many sounds and conversations at once. I take over a thousand pictures of a person’s face when I look at them. That’s why we have a hard time looking at people.” (C. Fleischmann, 2011)

We reduce the amount of sensory information bombarding a preschool child by being selective in what we have them focus on. Fidget toys and props can enhance songs and literacy activities as the child’s attention and participation gradually increases. Working with puzzles and other table-top toys on easels or facing a blank wall decreases visual clutter and increases the child’s focus.

In response to the question why she bangs her head, Carly says, “Because if I don’t I feel like my body is going to explode. It’s just like when you shake a can of coke. If I could stop it I would but it’s not like turning a switch off.” (C. Fleischmann, 2011)

Sensory input is cumulative. The child’s nervous system can continue to accumulate stress throughout the day until a relatively minor element or change can have a huge impact. New or difficult sensory activities should be approached gradually over time. A single touch of finger paint each day will gradually increase the length of time spent at the creative activity. Child-size ear-defenders can help a child participate in activities that might otherwise overwhelm him or her. Whenever possible, follow more challenging activities with ones that are stress-reducing for that child. In our classroom we keep small tubs of sensory materials available that we can pull out as needed and we also use classroom furnishing to create smaller areas for children to retreat to.

“I want to be able to go to school with normal kids but not have them get upset if I hit a table or scream. I want something that will put out the fire. I know what is right and wrong but it’s like I have a fight with my brain over it.” (C. Fleischmann, 2011)

I believe that Carly speaks for many children, younger and older, who want to be part of the world of children and play, even if it is difficult. Our role as Early Childhood Educators is to respect and support each child as a unique individual learning to be him or herself in a group and having fun in the process.

Carolyn Lavigne, RECE
Thursday’s Child Nursery School, AFCCS