Sensory Processing Disorders and Deep Pressure

I took a weekend getaway with my husband to Las Vegas, and when we were there, we walked through a Western Stock Trade Show for fun: lots of cowboys and cowgirls, boots, hats, apparel, equipment, etc. It was quite a different culture for me, as I grew up in Southern California, nowhere near a ranch or farm.

When we were there, I saw my first cattle chute, pictured below.

This made me excited (yes excited), as I had read about cattle chutes from Dr. Temple Grandin, animal behavior scientist. Grandin, on the autism spectrum, suffered from severe anxiety when she was a young adult. While staying on her aunt’s ranch, she learned that the deep pressure applied by the chute calms the animals. She tried the chute on herself, and discovered it also had a calming affect on her. She then went on to design her own “squeeze machine.” If you haven’t seen the HBO movie Temple Grandin, I highly, highly recommend it.

What is a sensory processing disorder, and what do we know about it today?

A sensory processing disorder is one in which a person’s nervous system does not register senses in a typical way. A person can be hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive, or a combination of both. The input from the nervous system is either too great, too little, or some of each.

There are many ways a sensory processing disorder may affect a person. If you are hyper-sensitive, you may hear noises louder than others, be more sensitive visually,  texturally, and/or have a greater sense of smell, etc.

If you are hypo-sensitive, you may not register pain the way most people do, or your hearing may cut in and out, have poor coordination, difficulty attending, etc.

What Grandin was doing in the squeeze machine was seeking out deep pressure. This often has a calming effect on the nervous system (whereas light touch can be irritating or even painful). Bear hugs can also be calming source of deep pressure for some. (I am not making any recommendations!)

If you suspect a student or your child has issues with sensory processing, ask for a referral to the school’s occupational therapist (OT). They will often observe the child, have the parent and teacher fill out a questionnaire about the child’s sensory seeking or avoidant behaviors, and then do activities with the child to see if there are any concerns. If your student/child does have a SPD, then therapy can begin with the OT to help address the issues, including coping techniques.

The Importance of Using Wait Time

jpg_watch800I have found in teaching, it really does make a difference to use wait time.

Wait time refers to the time you give your students for processing before they are expected to answer a question or do a task.

Years ago, I tested myself on this concept, and found that I only gave a few seconds for students to answer a question or comply to directions–not nearly enough wait time! (Studies show most teachers give about a second.)

Teaching Tip: After you ask a student a question or give directions, in your head, count to ten. This forces you to slow down, and allows more processing time for your students. I just smile at the students while waiting.

The Results: Time and time again, students come up with an answer or comply! They just needed more time to process. For students/children on the autism spectrum and/or with language processing disorders, the wait time may be even longer. Adjust accordingly.

Dr. Temple Grandin, Guest Speaker to 4-H Youth Organization

gif_PPU0114I recently had an opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin speak to a 4-H youth organization.

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is an animal behavior scientist, and on the autism spectrum.

4-H (head, heart, hands, and health) is a youth organization that has been around since the early 1900s. Their mission is “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development.” Traditionally, they have had an emphasis on agriculture. They also focus on citizenship, healthy living, science, engineering, and technology programs.

In her talk, Dr. Grandin mainly addressed the needs of students on the autism spectrum, while intertwining this with her work in the field of animal sciences. Here are some of the key points I came away after the talk:

  • If you don’t show kids interesting stuff, they don’t get interested. It’s that simple.
  • We need to be thinking a lot more about careers.
  • Free play teaches negotiation and turn taking.
  • There is too much emphasis on deficit and not what a kid is good at.
  • Kids need to learn to do what is assigned to them. In the real world–you get assigned things.

I absolutely appreciate Dr. Temple Grandin’s practicality when it comes to teaching!

Meeting Temple Grandin and National Autism Awareness Month

Lucky me! I got to meet and hear one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Temple Grandin. The meeting was at a preview of a new short documentary film called: Temple Grandin: The World Needs All Kinds of Minds. PBS and Colorado State University teamed up to produce and air the film.

For me, the highlight of the evening was hearing Dr. Grandin answer questions from the audience about autism and her career. She is quite an engaging speaker!

If you are unaware of who Temple Grandin is, she is a person on the autism spectrum who earned her Ph.D. in animal sciences, has designed over half the cattle handling facilities in the United States, and has written several books on autism. In 2010, she was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. For me, personally, she has given me valuable insight into teaching students on the spectrum, especially in making me aware of sensory issues the students may be having.

Some of the key points/snippets Dr. Grandin emphasized for people on the spectrum are:

  • learn the discipline of work; start your child working around age 12 to develop good work ethics and habits (could be dog walking or mowing a lawn, etc.)–she is seeing way too many kids sitting around playing video games
  • teach manners: by the time she was eight she could: shop, order food, shake hands, and use good manners
  • look at what the person is good at and capitalize on that
  • stretch your kids to try new things (but avoid surprises)–it was after her mother made her go to visit her aunt on her ranch that she learned about cattle, etc. which led to her creating her deep pressure squeeze machine and set her on her future career path
  • we all have to learn to endure boring things sometimes to get us to our goals (not all of work is exciting!)
  • have your child join a club that he or she is interested in (e.g. computer club, chess club, etc.); this will give him or her common interests to discuss

Thank you so much to Dr. Temple Grandin! You are an inspiration!

Language, Autism, and Teaching Tips

Teaching Tips for Working with Students/Children on the Autism Spectrum:

  • Be aware of the difficulties your student may have processing language. Give extra wait time.
  • Do not assume your student understands or will pick up on body language or figurative language. Explain yourself and any figurative language.
  • Apply direct teaching methods (e.g. teach the student the meaning of idioms, one by one, literally–“Let’s hit the road” means “Let’s go”).
  • Tap into the student’s interests when teaching (e.g. teach math using Thomas the Train or write a sentence/paragraph about Thomas the Train, etc.).
  • Understand your student may need many different examples before generalizing a concept.

Language and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children may or may not have speech delays and be on the autism spectrum; however, most all children/students on the autism spectrum have language delays, and many receive services for language development.

As educators, co-workers, and friends (people in general), it is important to understand language as relates to autism.

Students on the spectrum may or may not:

  • understand body language, understand turn-taking/social skills, understand similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, understatements, clichés, and idioms
  • use the correct word/put their words in the correct order, or use correct grammar
  • have processing delays and need extra wait time
  • be interested in only their topics of choice and perseverate (e.g. only want to discuss Thomas the Train), think from detail to big picture, have difficulty generalizing concepts and using their imagination

These are generalities, and it is important to always keep the individual in mind before any generalization. 

Many of the skills and concepts above must be taught directly.