Sensory Challenges for Students with Special Needs

Sensory Challenges:

In the world of special education, one of the most intriguing aspects of working with autistic students is understanding and addressing their unique sensory sensitivities. Sensory Challenges often vary from person to person, with some individuals displaying hyposensitivity, while others exhibit hypersensitivity. As a dedicated special education teacher, knowing the difference between these sensory states and discovering how to adapt your teaching methods in a self-contained setting can significantly enrich the learning experience for your students.

If you would like to read more on the Ultimate Checklist of Sensory Tools for Special Needs, you can read that here.


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Exploring Hyposensitivity and Hypersensitivity

Hyposensitivity: Imagine a classroom where a student seems unusually unperturbed by loud school bells or barely flinches when touched. This could be a sign of hyposensitivity, where sensory input doesn't evoke the expected response. For example, a hyposensitive student might not be bothered by wearing clothes with scratchy tags, may enjoy deep pressure sensations, or might even seek out excessive sensory stimulation like repetitive rocking or spinning.


Hypersensitivity: Picture another student who becomes visibly distressed when fluorescent lights flicker or when certain fabrics brush against their skin. This hypersensitivity indicates an intensified response to sensory stimuli. Hypersensitive students may also be overwhelmed by seemingly mundane sounds, such as the hum of the air conditioner or the chatter of their classmates.

Addressing Sensory Needs: Practical Examples

Navigating the spectrum of sensory sensitivities requires creativity and a personalized approach. Let's delve into some practical examples of how to cater to these unique sensory needs within a self-contained classroom:

1. Auditory Sensitivities:

Hyposensitivity Approach: For a hyposensitive student who struggles to respond to verbal instructions, consider using amplified audio cues or incorporating music during lessons. This can help capture their attention and enhance engagement. Some students respond to a tactile sound toy or even just musical instruments.

Hypersensitivity Approach: To support a hypersensitive student during noisy activities, provide noise-canceling headphones. Alternatively, offer a quiet corner where they can retreat when the auditory environment becomes overwhelming.


2. Tactile Sensitivities:

Hyposensitivity Approach: For a hyposensitive student who enjoys tactile input, incorporate sensory bins filled with various textures like sand, rice, or beans. This hands-on exploration can stimulate their senses and foster engagement. Some students even seek out oral stimulation.  For these students, I like to use chewable jewelry or sour spray.

Hypersensitivity Approach: When working with hypersensitive students, opt for soft and non-irritating classroom materials. Providing a selection of sensory-friendly fabrics for seat covers or offering fidget tools with different textures can help them cope with tactile sensitivities.


3. Visual Sensitivities:

Hyposensitivity Approach: A student who experiences hyposensitivity to visual stimuli might benefit from incorporating vibrant visuals and interactive displays into the lessons. You can purchase things like bubble tubes, glitter lamps, and interactive light panels. Consider using multimedia presentations or engaging educational videos to capture their attention. You can check out my visual aids pack here!

Hypersensitivity Approach: Create a visually calming classroom environment by using soft lighting and minimizing visually distracting elements. I have used these light covers to minimize the lights in the classroom. Provide students with personalized visual schedules that outline the day's activities to reduce anxiety associated with uncertainty.


4. Proprioceptive and Vestibular Sensitivities:

Hyposensitivity Approach: Engage a hyposensitive student's proprioceptive and vestibular senses through activities like swinging, bouncing on a stability ball, or using resistance bands during seated tasks. These activities can enhance their awareness of body movements. I have even used things like weighted lap pads and body socks.  Please talk with your occupational therapist before using these items.

Hypersensitivity Approach: If a student is hypersensitive to proprioceptive and vestibular input, offer alternative ways for them to engage in movements, such as seated stretches or deep breathing exercises. This allows them to participate without feeling overwhelmed.


5. Olfactory and Gustatory Sensitivities:

Hyposensitivity Approach: A student with hyposensitivity might find strong scents or flavors appealing. Incorporate scented markers or flavored snacks during art and break times to pique their interest and engagement. You could also try aromatherapy diffusers or even scented putty!

Hypersensitivity Approach: Recognize hypersensitive students' sensitivities to smells and tastes by avoiding strong odors in the classroom. Ensure that food-related activities are conducted in a controlled and well-ventilated space to minimize discomfort. I have even used nose plugs in the past.

The journey of accommodating sensory sensitivities in a self-contained setting is an ongoing learning experience. By tailoring your teaching methods to cater to the specific needs of hyposensitive and hypersensitive students, you create an inclusive environment that nurtures their growth and development.

As a special education teacher, your dedication to understanding and embracing sensory diversity can truly make a world of difference. By providing a safe haven where each student's sensory sensitivities are acknowledged, respected, and catered to, you empower them to excel academically, emotionally, and socially. Remember, by embracing the richness of sensory experiences, you're not only enhancing your students' lives but also broadening your own teaching toolkit in profound ways.

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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