American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2020      EARLY CHILDHOOD

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Helping Children with Sensory Impairments Explore and Learn

by Casey West Robertson

Casey West RobertsonFrom the Editor: Casey West Robertson is a teacher of blind students in northern Mississippi. She is also an instructor at Louisiana Tech University's Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness. In this article she summarizes strategies she has found useful to help children who have trouble processing sensory input.

Sensory impairments are not unique to blindness and low vision. They occur in many children, including those who are fully sighted. Some children with sensory impairments avoid sensory input, which they find overwhelming. On the other hand, some children feel compelled to seek additional sensory input. By avoiding or seeking sensory stimulation, these children calm themselves or gain focus. 

Children who are over-responsive to stimulation easily can become overwhelmed by the information bombarding them from the senses. When children are overly sensitive to touch the condition is sometimes referred to as tactile defensiveness. A child also may be overly sensitive to sound, or auditorily defensive. It is important for parents and teachers to create an environment that will help these children obtain and organize sensory information so they can learn effectively.

When we try to introduce children to Braille at an early age, we often hear professionals say, "He's so tactile defensive, there's no way he's going to touch Braille right now! We need to wait a year or two." It's true that many blind kids—though certainly not all of them—are tactilely defensive when we start to teach them Braille. They are uncomfortable touching the dots, and they have trouble developing early reading skills. However, this is not a reason to delay Braille instruction! It's a reason to help the child become more receptive to various kinds of tactile stimulation.

Children perceive tactile stimulation in one of two ways: it can soothe and calm them or put them on the alert. Often activities that involve firm, continuous touch will help soothe or calm a child, while light, brisk touching will raise alertness.

Some children resist getting their hands dirty or touching materials with certain textures, such as those that are wet, gritty, or slippery. The goal of the teacher or parent is to introduce gradual exposure to a variety of materials, extending the exposure each time. For instance, if the child does not like soft, slimy materials, the teacher can introduce a material such as Slime to the child for a brief second. Probably the child will be reluctant to touch it. The next exposure will last for two or three seconds. With each exposure the time lasts a bit longer. The teacher may also take an object that the student likes to play with and add the Slime in one small spot. The child can touch the Slime gradually while playing with the object.

I have found that children often prefer soft, squishy items or hard, rough objects. Typically, there is no crossover. If the child likes hard items, you might start with a container full of hard macaroni noodles and allow the child to look for a toy in the bottom of the container. Next, have the child find a toy in a container with uncooked rice. Fill each additional container with a softer substance until finally the child is able to look for a toy in a container of cotton balls or feathers. These are great activities to do with a child at home in addition to lessons at school or sessions in occupational therapy.

Another way to help children cope with tactile defensiveness is to have them touch a variety of textures while they swing on a swing. For instance, have the child touch a Braille page or feel different types of fabric while swinging. Swinging helps soothe the sensory channels while the child is exploring a new texture. Deep pressure massages to the hands and arms before and after touching a new texture also help lessen the sensory overload. Having a weighted blanket on the lap while reading Braille or exploring new textures will relieve tactile defensiveness as well.

I have also found that students with tactile defensiveness can benefit from heavy workload activities to help calm the nervous system. Before you explore a new texture, try playing a quick game of tug-of-war. You might have the child walk around the room carrying a heavy book or a weighted book bag. The book bag should have just enough weight to let the child know that it is not empty.

I have discovered that the use of vibrating pens and toys also helps some children. You might play a quick game of catch using the kind of weighted beanbags or sandbags that are often found in the physical education classroom. Bouncing on an indoor trampoline often works well to calm the nervous system before a child explores Braille or some other new texture.

Every child is different, and as a parent or teacher you will need to find out which methods work best. The goal is to expand the child's world, to open new possibilities for exploration and learning. Be creative, follow your next hunch, and have fun along the way.

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