Students working at a desk, with one holding a ball

Meet students' sensory needs

Middle years
0

Resources are provided with this practice

Yes

Summary

Students on the autism spectrum often have specific sensory needs that, when unmet, can lead to inattentiveness, meltdowns, and inappropriate behaviour. 

Making adjustments to accommodate these needs reduces the need for behaviour management and helps students to engage, attend, focus, and self-regulate during class. Adjustments can also significantly benefit all students by creating a more comfortable environment.

This practice will help students to

increase classroom attendance

be calm

focus

engage

This practice will help teachers to

stay calm

maximise teachable moments

How the practice works

Apply this practice with your students

The tabs below provide information to support your implementation of this practice. The sequence aligns with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership's High-Quality Professional Learning Cycle. You can find out more about high quality professional learning in the Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders.

A. Plan

Observing student behaviour

Students on the autism spectrum might have sensory needs relating to hearing, seeing, feeling (touch, temperature, body awareness) or smelling. Students can be: 

  • hypersensitive – they experience sensory input more than the average person, e.g. they may perceive noises more loudly than you do
  • hyposensitive – they are less responsive to particular sensations and need more of that sensory stimulus to recognise the sensation and/or feel comfortable.

Common sensory differences in students on the spectrum include:

  • aversion to noise, bright lighting, or physical touch and crowding
  • sensory-seeking behaviours including fidgeting and rocking on a chair.

When observing student behaviour, learning, or classroom performance, consider whether some students may benefit from sensory support.

Consulting with students, families, and specialists

Sensory needs vary from person to person. Consulting with students, parents/carers, and specialists such as therapists will help you to:

  • identify appropriate sensory supports
  • gain advice on a range of adjustments and supports.

It works better if the teacher:

  • asks for input from the student, parents/carers, and specialists around the student’s sensory supports.

It doesn't work if:

  • the teacher assumes what sensory support might be useful for the student without consultation
  • the teacher removes sensory supports to punish the student.

Materials informing this practice

Sensory needs: Practice brief

B. Set goals

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C. Apply the practice

Potential adjustments

 

1. Adjust the seating plan of the classroom and seat the student:

  • under a bank of lighting that is turned off
  • at the end of a row where they won’t be touched
  • on the side of the room furthest from the hallway.

2. Consider:

  • using a filter for the lights
  • dimming the lights or removing some of the fluorescent tubes
  • offering a variety of seating options.

3. Allow students to:

  • take sensory or movement breaks where they can remove themselves from the classroom if they are overloaded
  • wear headphones if they need to minimise noise 
  • use fidget objects
  • chew gum to satisfy the need for oral sensory input
  • sit on fit balls instead of chairs
  • listen to soft background music.

4. Do not insist on eye contact when talking to the student – they may be able to process auditory information and express speech better if they don’t have the additional task of focusing on eye contact at the same time.

D. Reflect and refine

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Reflect on your student goals

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Reflect on your teacher goals

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E. Share

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Your student goals and reflections

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Your teacher goals and reflections

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This practice is from the core research project

Reviews

5

20 Aug 2020

4

12 Nov 2020

Enjoyed the Invisible Diversity: A Story of Undiagnosed Autism talk. Learned about how important stimming is and that it is dangerous to make someone stop it. I also didn't know that there was a high suicide rate with people with autism and that their life expectancy is 10 years younger.

4

28 Mar 2021

Discussion

Keely

Anyone on the spectrum may have sensory processing needs that continue throughout their life. The evidence that the research team have drawn was specifically with regards to meeting the needs of students in the middle years. However, many older students and adults on the spectrum will tell you about sensory information that they find overwhelming and can be the best source of ways to support them.

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  • bhuds45

    How do teachers calm students when they refuse to leave the classroom whilst maintaining a learning environment for other students?

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  • Jill Baldry

    Have you asked the student what they need to help them calm/feel safe. Do they need a chill out zone in the room with tools that support them e.g. headphones ( soft music), soft seating, books, drawing material, fidget tools ( what do they need)? This space can be used for any child who needs to chill out. A timer can be used along with this space so that the student knows how long they can be there. There may also be a visual to explain what to do in the space and how to use it.
    Pre-planning and practice of the space needs to happen when the child is calm so that when they are heightened or overstimulated they can be prompted ( verbally, visually, gesturally ) to move to the chill out zone. The teacher can ask the student how they would like to be prompted.

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  • Tarsha_Roberts

    How do teachers increase the participation level of children who are low energy, low motivation and disengaged?

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  • Kirsten Noe

    The current waitlists for Occupational Therapists in our area are 6 months or more. This makes it difficult to quickly get a sensory profile for a student. Are there teacher versions of sensory profiles? Has anyone else had this problem, and what have to done to overcome it, other than just getting to know the kids and asking them (given some kids won't be able to articulate)?

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  • Teacher007

    Two of the sensory profile tools on the Pearson site (www.pearsonclinical.com.au) have school/classroom versions. For use in schools they need to be administered by an OT or a special education teacher so don't know if you have the latter. Otherwise we have used a UK sensory audit tool to help problem solve sensory issues within general school environments - so its not just in response to a child's needs but more general and inclusive: https://www.aettraininghubs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/37.1-Sens…. Hope this gives you some ideas :)

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  • lbott23

    Are there any suggestions/tips & tricks for working with ASD children who are hypersensitive with respects to touch, sound and light? I have a student who struggles with the sensation of sticky, soft, hard, etc.

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  • nicolajardine

    I quite often have calming background music playing softly in the classroom when independent tasks are being completed. This, in addition to turning majority of the bright fluorescent lights off, I have found to be really settling for many students. They love it! Has anyone else found this? I've started letting them choose as well (depending on the task) whether we have calming music or our disney/kidz bop playlist. Sometimes they even find singing softly to some of the more popular music is enough to soothe them/get into their focus zone as they work through each step of the task on their own.

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  • J_Mark_OT

    Hi, I'm an OT and I'm not sure of the evidence base, but the practical strategies we frequently see working in classrooms include:
    Noise reduction headphones/ ear plugs (ear plugs can be a more discreet option - see for example https://www.megamusiconline.com.au/hearos-hs311-smalll-high-fidelity-se…)
    Visual noise metres (allow teachers to give feedback to whole class on noise-level, visually prompting decrease where necessary. Sometimes the student with ASD will use this themselves)
    Soft furnishings/ carpet/ curtains can absorb and reduce some noise.
    Making noise more predictable (e.g. warnings before noisier activities)
    Incorporating opportunities for the student to work in a quieter area (e.g. small group working just outside the classroom for a discussion-based activity)
    Structuring class transitions can reduce the noise level that comes with more disorganised transitions (e.g. one group moves at a time, clear behavioural expectations around noise etc).
    Providing visual prompts to support understanding despite classroom noise level.

    I know for sure that in terms of background noise and on-task behaviour, research has shown some effects for white noise on attention (there are lots of apps on the app store) but I'm not sure how that will go for your students unless it was delivered over individual earphones. Although again, you might want to trial it with the whole class. I think the strength in what you are doing is consulting with your students by allowing them to choose. Choice making often assists with buy in. Hope this is useful.

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