Sensory differences

11 Feb

I really thought I was getting somewhere with the staff at M’s school in regard to her autism and her quite significant differences in processing. Then I was having a quick conversation with her teacher last week and she let slip that she “was constantly having to ask M to look at her when she’s speaking to me.” I gently put her right. How hard can it be and how often do I have to explain that with all the background noise in the classroom it takes a serious effort on M’s part to listen and process an instruction; if she has to divert energy by looking at someone at the same time she’s 10 times more likely to forget the instruction! And she is one of the lucky ones – there are autistic people who feel pain if made to have eye contact.

Then of course I think now I need to give the staff a refresher course about what defines noise. “Oh it’s not very noisy now at all, they have quietened down a lot since the start of term.” Yes, in terms of speaking loudly maybe, but rustling of clothing, shuffling on seats, tapping pencils, the hum of the computers, scraping of chairs, all these sounds can magnify in the head of someone with sensory sensitivity to the point that it sounds like screaming. Their concentration is blown, they get agitated and then the “bad behaviour” begins.Refusing to answer questions, rocking on their seat, humming (M hums a lot to block out other sounds), singing or repeating the same phrases over and over, and many other so-called disruptive actions can be the only way the over-stimulated person has of trying to reset their mind to a calm mode. Getting annoyed with them and getting them to “shush” is not the answer – they need to be gently moved somewhere totally quiet where they can self-calm in peace. It might take 5 minutes, it might take half an hour, or even more depending on what has happened previously. M is again fortunate that she has had a den built where she can run to if feeling overwhelmed. It’s not perfect as it is within the library area of the school but in such a small building with few opportunities for solitude it’s not bad. It is a smallish table set against a wall, with cushions and a fleece blanket under it. There is a screen that surrounds the table, close enough that in order to see M you would have to be standing against the screen and peering over the top. Getting her to use it appropriately is going to be a learning curve for everyone involved; as with any 6 year old she is quite capable of deciding she’ll try to use it as a cop-out from a less than favourite lesson, but the staff should fairly quickly become aware of when she is genuinely unable to work, and when she is trying it on.

Smell is one sensory issue that we are really having trouble with. It is almost impossible to regulate this without being a hermit. M has enormous problems with smells, but as yet she is not really able to tell me what she can’t cope with, unless it is so bad she either runs away or vomits, both of which have happened. Although in the past I have been very happy the school has it’s own kitchen, now this appears to be M’s main source of torture. The smells of cooking that I find for the most part delicious when I arrive to collect her after her morning session are driving her crazy some days. When, in a few weeks. we increase her hours to include lunchtime it has been agreed that she will eat her lunch (she has a packed lunch every day – no surprises!) in her classroom to avoid the double whammy of smells and socialisation. Frankly I am not sure the canteen is ever going to be somewhere she can cope with but we will deal with that later.

I could list several more ways in which M differs from the “norm” in terms of her sensory processing but that’s enough for today. Got that off my chest now. Thank you for reading.


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