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The Effect of Sensory and Perceptual Difficulties on Learning Styles

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The Effect of Sensory and Perceptual Difficulties on Learning Styles

By Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2006


Individuals on the autism spectrum have remarkably varied problems with sensory over-sensitivity and information processing. While these problems originate in the brain – their source is biological – they manifest in behaviors that compromise individuals’ ability to learn and function in the world around them. In my analysis of reports from many people with autism, it appears that the faulty manner in which their brains process incoming information can be grouped into three basic categories. 1) sensory oversensitivity; 2) perceptual problems; and 3) difficulties organizing information.

Sensory Oversensitivity. From child to child sensory oversensitivity is very variable. It can range from mild (slight anxiety when the environment is too loud, too bright or too chaotic) to severe, with an individual going into a screaming tantrum every time he is in a large supermarket. One child may not tolerate fluorescent lights; another, like me, fears sudden loud noise because it hurts my ears. Children may be gagged by certain smells such as perfumes. The taste and/or texture of foods can be repulsive. Light touch can be merely annoying or be actually painful. One child may enjoy water play and splashing and another may run screaming from it. Some individuals on the spectrum are attracted to objects that move rapidly and others will avoid them. When senses are disordered, the attention and concentration that learning requires becomes difficult and in some cases, impossible. Children who spend their days fearful of people and places who, through past experience, have been overwhelming to their senses, have little chance to relax enough to take notice of the learning opportunities being presented.

Perceptual Problems. Problems in this category often determine the style of learning that will be most effective. A child with poor auditory perception may hear sounds like a bad mobile phone connection, where voice fades in and out or entire parts of the communication are missing. The child is more likely to learn best with visually presented information. A child with visual perception problems may learn best through the auditory channel. Children who look out the corner of their eye while reading often have visual processing problems. Suspect a visual processing problem in children who finger-flick in front of their eyes, or hate either fluorescent lights or escalators. To some of these individuals the world looks like it is viewed through a kaleidoscope: flat, without depth perception, and broken into pieces. For others, it is like looking through a small tube, seeing only the small circle of vision directly in front of them, with no peripheral vision. Some nonverbal individuals have both visual and auditory processing problems. They may learn best through their sense of touch and smell. For instance, to learn to dress they may need to be hand-over-hand “walked” through putting on socks or pouring cereal. They may learn letters and numbers best when they can touch them, and trace their shape with their hands or fingers. Representative objects rather than visual charts can be useful in helping these individuals know when it is time to transition to a new activity.

Organizing Information. Because of these faulty connections in the brain, an individual may receive information but be unable to organize it or make sense of it. Donna Williams, a well-known person with autism fromAustralia, mentions that speech sounds like “blah-blah-blah” and the meaning disappears. She is hearing the words clearly but not understanding them. Problems with organizing information affect children’s ability to form categories that is the foundation for later concept formation. Difficulties people on the spectrum have with multi-tasking would also fall into this category. Again, these difficulties are highly variable, and range from mild to severe depending on which brain circuits connected and which ones did not. One classic test of flexible thinking is the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test®. In this test a person has to sort differently-patterned cards, one at a time, into categories such as yellow or circles. A person on the spectrum is slower to figure out new categories as they are introduced.

Sensory overload can cause either vision or hearing to shut down completely. During these times no information will get through to the brain, and learning will not occur. Also, sensory and information processing problems are worse when a child is tired. It is therefore best to teach difficult material when the child is alert and wide awake. Since my oversensitivity to noise was fairly mild, I responded well to a gently intrusive teaching method where the teacher grabbed my chin to make me pay attention. Donna Williams told me that method absolutely would not work with her. The tactile input coupled with the teacher speaking would be overload and could not be processed simultaneously. Donna is a mono-channel learner. She either has to look at something or listen to something, but she cannot look and listen at the same time. Information processing on more than one sensory channel is not possible.

An effective teacher with spectrum children and adults is one who is a good detective and looks for the source of learning difficulties. Often they can be found in one or a combination of these categories mentioned above. A challenge, even one that is considered mild, will dramatically compromise a child’s ability to learn via ‘traditional’ teaching methods. Teachers who truly want to help students with sensory and perception difficulties will figure out the child’s unique learning style and adapt teaching methods accordingly. Some children do best with written instructions and assignments; others will do best through oral methods or oral testing. The best teachers have a flexible approach and teach to the style through which these children can learn.



Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems, and is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of numerous books on autism and is a worldwide speaker on autism topics. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, coauthored with Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk, captured a prestigious Silver Award in the 2006 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition. Her previous book, Animals in Translation (2005) was on the New York Times Bestseller list. For more information visit www.templegrandin.com

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2006. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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  1. Joel says:

    Spot on Dr. Grandin. Sensory overload IS the root cause of all these behaviors. I couldn’t agree with you more.