There are many lists and suggestions for sensory-inclusive education for autistic students. Gaining a sense of your student’s unique sensory profile – what causes distress or helps them stay regulated – is important. They may be impacted differently at school than at home. How can a caregiver ensure their child’s or teen’s sensory needs are met at school?
In the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan
Request that the occupational therapist observe the classroom and school environment as part of an OT assessment. They can identify situations and environmental changes that may help avoid sensory overload. For example, if a teacher shares that a student is struggling with the transition into the classroom, the occupational therapist may be able to pinpoint the pertinent issues. Is the busy environment causing the student to get distracted? The student may need to come in a bit before or after everyone else to ease successfully into the day.
Ask the team to review your child’s IEP or 504 plan to see if accommodations pass the stranger test. Accommodations should be specific enough that a person reading the document for the first time can support your student. “Preferred seating,” “access to flexible seating,” and “movement breaks as needed” are all too vague. For instance, preferred seating refers to the student’s preference, not the teacher’s. This may be front and center or where the student can move around and easily access the door. Staff will not know which types of equipment (standing desk, hokki stool, etc.) to have in the room unless these types are listed specifically in the IEP or 504 plan.
When providing a sensory-inclusive education, consider if there is a related skill that can be taught. Self-awareness (the student knowing their accommodations and recognizing when they need one) and self-advocacy (asking for the accommodation) are critical skills that can be written into IEP goals and objectives.
Include consultation between the occupational therapist and the rest of the team in the service delivery grid. This can occur in the spring and early fall to ensure that a student is set up for success at the beginning of the school year. This can also be done on an “as needed” basis to troubleshoot the implementation of accommodations or suggest new ideas.
In the Classroom
The instance when an autistic student is most likely to need an accommodation for sensory-inclusive education may be when they are least able to request it due to overwhelm. Natural opportunities for regulation can be built into the school day. For instance, having a student be a designated equipment carrier after gym is an opportunity for heavy work. A student who dreads the commotion of breaking into small groups may be given the chance to walk a note to the office instead. Encourage the team to get creative.
Sensory breaks are not rewards and should never need to be earned. A student’s accommodations are necessary for them to stay regulated and ready to learn. Consequently, taking away accommodations as punishment may set off a behavioral spiral and increase a student’s anxiety.
Normalize that we all have sensory needs – things we seek out or avoid to stay comfortable. Non-autistic students also benefit from permission to move as they need, stand, stretch, or draw at their desks while attending a lesson.
In the School
Here are some ways to consider sensory advocacy more broadly in your student’s school community:
- Paula Kluth, in Don’t We Already Do Inclusion?: 100 Ideas for Improving Inclusive Schools, suggests making every classroom a “sensory room.” She recommends brainstorming a list of items with educators that they need to create sensory-inclusive education for all students. This should be done with an occupational therapist. Consider seeking students’ input, too!
- Advocate for the right to recess. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated recess “should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.” See if there is a policy in your district that protects students’ right to recess. You can also see if the school provides structured recess options. These may include pre-planned games, activities, or alternate settings.
- Work with your principal, parent-teacher organization, or parent advisory councils to install a sensory path in the building or on the playground. These can be a pre-packaged kit or done very simply and temporarily with painter’s tape.
- Some caregivers have successfully advocated with parent-teacher organizations or local parent networks to implement sensory-friendly periods ahead of community events. Starting in a low-key environment before others arrive can help acclimate students to a space and ensure they can participate.
There are many ways to go beyond a general list of accommodations to see that students’ sensory needs are part of the school’s life. If you’re still unsure how to effect change, the Association for Autism and Neurodiversity (AANE) is here to help, whether through a brief call, parent coaching, or an IEP review.
Amanda Bailey is an AANE Support Specialist and a Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and Massachusetts PTI-Trained Educational Advocate. She is the neurodivergent parent of two autistic children. For more information about the Association for Autism and Neurodiversity (AANE), visit aane.org.
This article has been reprinted with permission. You may view the original article, published on March 3, 2022, at aane.org/autism-info-faqs/library/sensory-advocacy-at-school/.