To the Teacher of My Child With Sensory Processing Disorder
My child has sensory processing disorder (SPD). This means her brain interprets sensory information differently than most people’s. When she has to process multiple sensory stimuli, she feels overwhelmed and may shut down, which can distract her from her learning.
All the bright, stimulating posters in your classroom may be overwhelming visual input. As a result, she may be unable to pay attention to her classwork or your teaching.
The sounds inside and outside the classroom sound louder to her. Maybe a student is whispering a few rows back but to her, it sounds like the student is just a desk or two over. Loud noises, such as someone dropping a book, may sound as loud as a gunshot to her. She may cover her ears during an assembly or on a field trip because the noise hurts her ears.
She is extra-sensitive to smells. Perfume, cologne, and even strong-scented deodorant overwhelm her. Scented chapstick or body spray will be a distraction.
Despite all these sensitivities, my daughter is also under-sensitive in some areas. She may need extra sensory input, such as jumping or stomping. If she does not get these sensory breaks, she may be unable to pay attention and learn. She has a strong need for oral stimulation. If you could make an exception to the “no gum allowed” rule, it would really help her focus. A squishy ball or fidget spinner will help when she needs some fine motor stimulation, especially if she is nervous about something.
That brings me to another aspect of SPD: anxiety. A child with SPD may have anxiety because they never quite know what to expect in the world. Let me give you an example: There is going to be a fire drill at school. You will give the class a heads up that it will be happening sometime today. My daughter will sit in the classroom wondering when the fire drill will occur, anxious because she doesn’t know when the shrill, painful ring will sound. Because of this, she cannot concentrate on the lesson you are teaching and will struggle when the time comes for her to demonstrate understanding.
Here is another way to look at it. Pretend you’re afraid of spiders. You know there’s a spider in your bedroom, but you don’t know where it is, when it will appear, or even if it’s poisonous. Now imagine living with that knowledge every single day. That is why my daughter has anxiety; the unpredictability of the world puts her on edge so she is constantly on high alert.
What I am asking, dear teacher, is you try to understand my daughter. Understand she is not a naughty child. These behaviors are coping mechanisms. What you may view as insubordinate behavior is her attempt to either escape overwhelming sensory information or seek sensory input to feel “normal.” Please understand my child is not slow, but learns in a different way.
Please also realize she is a person with SPD, but that is not all she is: my daughter is the most loyal person I know; she is compassionate and has a huge heart, especially for animals; she’s generous and will give you the shirt off her back; she is funny and loves to make others laugh; she’s sharp and notices everything.
As you teach my daughter this year, please keep these things in mind. Put yourself in her shoes when you’re feeling frustrated and offer her extra help if she isn’t paying attention. Most of all, treat my daughter with respect and kindness, and remember she’s a person with an SPD diagnosis, and not just a diagnosis itself.
A version of this story originally appeared on Lynn Sollitto.
Getty image by SerrNovik