At Spring Common Academy we have a dedicated teacher and a TA who coordinate Sensory practice across the school.
One theory to explain what underlies the sensory processing difficulties of many people with ASC is that mechanisms are developed in early childhood to control the flood of incoming stimuli which threatens to overwhelm (Bogdashina, Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome2003).
This may be achieved by:
- attending to only one sensory channel at a time
- avoiding direct perception (for example, by not looking directly at people)
- by switching off a sensory channel when overwhelmed (for example, leading to the common suspicion of hearing impairment in young children with ASC)
- by compensating for difficulties in one sensory area by deploying another (for example, by tapping a familiar object to confirm what it is)
- by becoming immersed, in ‘resonance’ with another object (for example, losing oneself in the vividness of a particular colour)
- through a particularly vivid form of ‘daydreaming’
These ‘defence mechanisms’ can both make the student with ASC unavailable for conventional learning experiences and make them likely to experience great stress if a someone cuts across the strategy they are deploying with a particular demand. Consequently, at Spring Common Academy, with the support of our Occupational Therapy colleagues, we have a range of strategies in place to keep the sensory diet we provide for our students manageable and thereby reduce the need for sensory defensive strategies to be deployed.
It is a central part of our school ethos that all of our children should have access to the full range of experiences offered within the school. For this reason, all students belong to mixed ability class groups, with similarly aged peers. Some students, including those with ASC, require opportunities to follow programmes away from the class group. This may be for a range of reasons, including where the classroom environment cannot be adapted sufficiently to provide a low arousal learning context for a particular child. In this case the low arousal environments of the ASC base rooms may be timetabled for a child to follow individualised learning programmes.
Sometimes a teacher or other member of staff may become concerned about a pattern of behaviours displayed by a child, for example, placing hands over their ears for extended periods of time or repeatedly screaming without obvious cause. In these cases it may be helpful to request the assistance of an Occupational Therapist, who may complete a sensory profile for the child, identifying areas of hyper (over) and hypo (under) sensitivity. The OT will then develop a programme, planning recommendations to support the child.
Reccomendations to support the child may involve:
- changes to the environment
- planned desensitisation to a particular stimulus that is likely to be unavoidable in the school context
- a particular exercise programme designed to aid organising, alerting, calming and modulating levels of arousal
- providing specialist equipment such as ear defenders, chewing tubes, weighted blankets or specialist seating
Sensory Integration (SI) is a form of therapy for people with ASC which comprises a range of different components including swinging, spinning and deep pressure. We are very fortunate at Spring Common in having a dedicated SI room, equipped with a ceiling-hung swing, spinning platform and appropriate padding. The room is timetabled for children who have personalised programmes that have been devised for them by Occupational Therapists. These programmes are kept in a folder in the SI room for easy access by staff providing individual support during each student’s therapy session.
Sensory circuits are activity programmes that are designed to alert, organise and calm the sensory processing of children. A range of children at Spring Common follow sensory circuits, which are not an intervention exclusive to students with ASC. Circuits take place in the upper and lower school halls at the beginning of the day. The range of activities that are involved include: balancing, jumping, catching, throwing, spinning and receiving pressure. The equipment required includes: trampettes, therapy balls, hoops, wobble boards, spinning boards, squeeze box, benches and bean bags. Unlike SI programmes, a teacher who feels that a child in his or her class may benefit from participating in a sensory circuit can organise for this to happen in consultation with a senior manager. The involvement of an OT is not necessary but in some cases may be helpful in making suggestions about the individualisation of circuits for some students.
The Occupational Therapy Service suggest that sensory circuits may be useful for children who display the following behavioural characteristics:
- constant fiddling in class
- slow to start work and constantly missing cues
- difficulty organising self
- lethargic and dreamy
- poor coordination and balance
- known sensory processing difficulties
- constant rocking
- difficulty paying attention
- lacking confidence to join in
It is easy to see how many of these behaviours may arise from the core difficulties associated with ASC. However, it is important to note that fiddling may help some children to self regulate and concentrate on tasks and so it may not always be desirable to try and extinguish such behaviours.
Active breaks are a less formal support to a student’s sensory organisation and processing than sensory circuits and may be built into a student’s day at fixed times or used flexibly as required.
An active break may take a range of different forms based on a child’s individual needs and may include:
- a walk outside
- time spent on particular pieces of the outdoor cardio-vascular equipment (which includes swinging and spinning opportunities)
- -use of a particular part of the equipment used in sensory circuits
- a period of deep pressure
The Listening Programme
Students at Spring Common have the opportunity to follow the listening program when this is felt to be appropriate to their individual needs. The listening program is designed to support children with distorted auditory perception to process sounds more successfully. The developers of the program claim benefits in the areas of attention and concentration, listening, speech and language, memory, communication, social skills, reading, sensory integration, self regulation, physical balance and coordination, vocal performance and musical ability. Whilst we would not be able to show evidence of this wide range of effects there is no doubt that students with ASC who follow this program (or who spend a period at the end of the day listening to other pieces of selected music on personal stereos) find this a valuable activity.
We have a number of children who benefit from access to personal stereos at other times, such as when on transport to an activity. It is believed that by controlling and providing a consistent auditory input this will make children less vulnerable to upset from unexpected external stimuli such as a wait in traffic.