Best Practices

Teaching Students with Sensory Processing Disorder at the University Level

Children are expected to outgrow certain behaviors by the time they reach college — constant fidgeting, excitability, and unawareness of surroundings, for example. But children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) may not outgrow these tendencies.

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SPD affects up to 16 percent of school-aged children. Chang, Gratiot, and Owen note that SPD can cause long-term deficits in intellectual and social development. According to Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, these deficits result from sensory signals being improperly organized, leading to inappropriate and atypical responses to stimuli. Miller explains that SPD “affects the way the brain interprets the information that comes in and the response that follows, causing emotional, motor, and other reactions that are inappropriate and extreme.” It is often said that the brains of children with SPD are “simply wired differently.” This does not mean less, it just means different. These children may also have special gifts such as absolute pitch in music.

Parents whose children have SPD often ask “What does the future hold?” Kranowitz points out that unfortunately no longitudinal research has been done on children with SPD as they grow up. However, she notes that stories and anecdotes can offer some insight on the question. Therapists treating teenagers and adults with SPD and adults living with SPD can give us a glimpse of what coping with SPD feels like.

College students with SPD may never have received intervention to teach them adaptive skills, so higher education teachers must be able to recognize symptoms of sensory processing issues in students, and make adjustments as needed.

SPD may cause students to search for the satisfaction of sensory needs, such as constant movement even when seated in the classroom, recoiling from over-bright computer screens, or preferring flipping through a book instead of using a tablet. Though it is tempting to resist changes to traditional pedagogical methodologies, it is important to incorporate different teaching methods for students with brains that are “wired differently.” Some possible interventions include:

  • Dimming room lighting
  • Offering both paper and computer-based exams
  • Lowering noise levels
  • Allowing students to walk in the back of the room during lectures.

Simple accommodations such as these can be provided without drawing attention to specific students and may benefit the whole class.

Educators hate to see their students fail. Watching students fail can be especially difficult at the university level because future careers are on the line.

For our students to succeed, we have to adapt to their needs. We should listen to every student, especially those with challenges such as SPD, and maximize their strengths while working on their weaknesses. I strongly believe that every student has the potential to reach their academic goal. It is my job as an educator to help them find the best route to reach that goal.

Teaching differently may be the best route for those who learn differently.

Additional Reading:

5 Ways to Support Students with Sensory Processing Disorder
In addition to giving support ideas, this article provides a clear explanation of the two typical categories of students with SPD.

Sensory Supports for the Classroom
This blog post includes a handout describing things related to each of the five senses that may lower or increase a student’s stimulation level.

Problem Behavior in the Classroom
This article provides extensive lists of ways that SPD may manifest in the classroom and modifications that can make problems less likely.

Pablo Mleziva

Pablo Mleziva

Pablo Mleziva was born in Argentina where he attended Universidad Adventista del Plata to received his degree of Physical Education Teacher. He came to California, United States, almost 20 years ago to continue with his studies at Loma Linda University receiving the degrees of Master and Doctor in Physical Therapy. Today he is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Physical Therapy at Loma Linda University. Pablo Mleziva was a speaker and coordinator for Health Seminars in Central America, South America and United States and producer for the International Television program Viva Mejor (vivamejor.net) for more than 10 years.
Pablo Mleziva

2 comments

  • | 9 months ago

    good job Pueblo, proud of you my colleague.

  • | 9 months ago

    Thank you Dr. Mleziva for this insightful information into how SPD can affect children and even adults ability to learn . Being more aware of these students and providing/allowing for adaptations in the classroom will definitely aid them in achieving their full potential.

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