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Sensory-Friendly Learning at Home

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Sensory-Friendly Learning at Home

by Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L

Autism Asperger’s Digest  September/October 2013


Homeschooling is a wonderful way to provide a customized education for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through homeschooling, the curriculum and classroom can be tailored to your child’s learning style. It is for this reason that many families who have children with special needs find homeschooling so appealing.

Our existence and successful functioning is dependent directly on the information we receive through our senses, our processing of that information, and the formation of the correct response. When a child has sensory processing issues, he may have difficulty processing the information received and problems with forming the appropriate social or motor response. A variety of challenges in any area of daily life can be affected. On top of this, many children with sensory issues have anxiety surrounding schoolwork.

Assess Sensory Needs

Without a basic knowledge of your child’s specific areas of difficulty, it may be hard to create an environment in which he will be successful. For this reason, I recommend that you organize information about your child before you begin each school year (see sidebar). Answer each question about your child’s sensory needs as thoroughly as possible. When I ask parents to make observations and record the responses, many are surprised at the patterns in their child’s learning styles and behavior. After all, the more you know about your child, the more effective your teaching can be. Keep in mind that as children grow, their sensory needs change. Make sure to re-assess your child’s needs annually.

Type of Sensory Need Does My Child… What to Try
Attention-related >fidget when listening to a short story? >Have him sit on a carpet square or beanbag chair. Or   use an air cushion or wiggle seat to sit directly on a chair. Offer toys to   fidget with such as Koosh balls or stress balls. These items can be purchased   at www.therapyshoppe.com.>Make sure there are a minimum of distractions during   school time.
>have difficulty sitting in his seat for several   minutes when doing a worksheet?
Sensory Craving or Sensory Avoiding >prefer rough, crashing play or quiet, gentle play? >If your child attends occupational therapy, ask your   therapist for a list of activities that calm or stimulate your child.>Provide crunchy snacks during independent work for   increased focus/organization.
>seem to be in constant motion?
Executive Functioning  >possess poor organizational skills? >Place all items needed for school in one area so that   he does not have to search for them.>Color-code folders by subject.>Work on subjects that are difficult first when he is   more focused.>Involve your child in the selection of his curriculum.   If he is a visual learner, make sure books are filled with pictures and   graphics.
>lose his work easily or misplace items?
>have a preferred learning style—is he visual (learns   by looking at pictures), kinesthetic (learns by doing), or auditory (learns   by listening)?
Emotional  >express his feelings if he becomes frustrated? How   does he show frustration? >Use a schedule and allow him to check off each task as   it is completed. Give him as much control as possible.>Offer lots of specific praise.>Break down difficult jobs into smaller steps.
>seem to have frequent meltdowns?
Physical  >have difficulty forming letters and writing on lined   paper? >Have your child trace letters onto sandpaper or   shaving cream for a different sensory experience.>Highlight top and bottom lines on the paper.>Direct your child to place small objects, such as   coins and beads, into putty or dough to strengthen fingers.


Set Up for Sensory Success!

Space planning. Many families prefer to use their entire home during the school day. However, it can be beneficial to maintain a separate space for school and studying. If a separate space is not possible, use masking tape or shelving to create a boundary for your learning area.

            Out of sight, out of mind. Open bookshelves are usually cost-effective and easy to assemble. The problem is that the colorful folders, markers, and containers they hold can be distracting. To solve this, we used a white sheet purchased at a discount store. We cut it to fit the size of the bookcase and then cut it down the middle. Cup hooks were placed directly into the shelf and the sheet was hung onto the hooks. The setup resembled a closet with two doors. It was an easy way to minimize the distraction of the bookshelves and my son’s desire to play with all the items inside! Another idea is to place bookshelves directly in a closet and keep the doors closed.

            Ambience, or lack thereof. Types of lighting and the color of the room can greatly affect learning. Print worksheets on colored paper. It is known that cool colors (blue, purple, and green) are generally calming, and warm colors (red, yellow, and orange) are more arousing to the senses. Many classroom teachers fill their room with color and texture, causing children with sensory processing difficulties to be easily distracted and lose focus. Provide color in the worksheets, lessons, and books instead of on the walls.

Avoid using any type of fluorescent lighting. Be aware of any light fixtures that cause buzzing sounds as this can be extremely distracting for some children. Natural lighting works well in the homeschool room, but be careful not to place your child directly next to the window as he may become distracted by the view. Instead, use café curtains to cover the lower half of the window while still allowing the flow of natural light.

            Materials at the ready! Make sure that each shelf is clearly labeled by subject so your child can maintain organization. Give your child his own bin filled with the supplies he will need for the lesson.

            Consistency. Children with ASD and sensory issues benefit from consistency and knowing exactly what is expected. Distractions such as the dog, phone, and radio should be minimized as much as possible.

A Sensory-Friendly Curriculum

Reading. Use masking tape on the floor or sidewalk chalk outside to create letters. Have your child walk directly on a letter. The child will have more fun and look forward to the increased physical activity. Weighted blankets and lap pads are great for a homeschool classroom. The weighted blanket is an extremely helpful tool in providing calming input when listening to a story or learning a difficult concept. When my son begins to fidget and wiggle his body, the added pressure of the blanket is usually enough to get him through until break time.

            Math. Purchase large foam numbers and ask your child to use them to solve math problems. Ask him to jump onto the number that is the solution to a word problem. Use math manipulatives such as dice, place-value cubes, and play money. Hands-on games, such as a bingo game, can be included. Give your child the option of working out problems on a large whiteboard using scented markers.

            Handwriting. Handwriting can be difficult for a child with sensory issues. He may have difficulty adjusting the pressure on the writing utensil. Mechanical pencils are easier for children who press too lightly on the paper. The use of pencil grips can be beneficial for a child who squeezes a pencil too tightly. I have even placed bubble wrap on my son’s pencil when practicing handwriting so that he becomes more aware if he’s squeezing too hard! Giving your child a choice of the utensil he writes with might help him feel more in control. Using a Smencil (www.educationalinsights.com), a scented pencil, is often motivating enough for my son to work on a difficult assignment.

Raised line paper (available at www.schoolspeciality.com) can provide extra sensory input to children when learning to write. Not only can they see the lines on the paper, but they can feel them, too.

            Get moving! There is an old saying, “Sit still and pay attention.” This directly contradicts everything I believe in as an occupational therapist. I encourage you to sit at your desk and not bounce your foot, wiggle fingers, chew on something, and sit like a statue while doing your work—bet you can’t! Please do not expect your child to do so. Build jumping, clapping, and hopping into your learning day. Some children actually learn better when they are moving.

Rewarding Effort

When a child has sensory issues, changes in routine can be difficult. A classroom routine and separate rule list should be placed in direct view of your child. We all need to know what is expected of us, and this is especially true of kids on the spectrum. A token board is a reward tool that often works well. Let your child know that if he completes his worksheet independently, he will receive a token. Give him ample opportunities to earn a specified number of tokens. At the end of the day, provide him with a special treat for a job well done. When problem behaviors happen, be sure to take a token away or have a clear consequence. We keep a treasure chest in our home. At the end of the day, if our children have earned the designated number of tokens, each gets the opportunity to choose a prize. I routinely frequent the dollar store and stock up on items such as crayons, stickers, toys, and markers. Rotate the items in the treasure chest to keep motivation high.


The most important thing to remember when homeschooling your child with ASD is to relax and have fun. When you study the learning style of your child, you might just learn something about yourself. Celebrate every success and work to build your child’s confidence. The bond you create will last a lifetime!


Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and the author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013). She has two sons with ASD and SPD and homeschools her younger son. Visit www.pocketot.com for more information.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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