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Sensory Processing Issues and Subtle Learning Differences


Having sensory processing disorder does not mean a child automatically has a learning disability, or autism for that matter, but it does mean that child's brain processes sensory information differently. Since we learn through our senses, sensory processing challenges can affect learning. This is particularly true when we try to teach kids through sensory channels that are unreliable for them and don't offer options for them to use their strongest sensory processing channels for help. Some kids find it easier to process information through their ears when their eyes are not distracted by visual stimulation--as Lindsey Biel and I wrote in our book Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Some find it easier to read text if they have text-to-speech software giving them the auditory version. Others may find robotic text-to-speech software voices so difficult to understand that they would rather just read the text. Subtitles on videos, whether educational ones or ones kids and teens with SPD watch for fun, can help them process information too.

The truth is that even kids with sensory processing disorder who are evaluated for learning disabilities and can pass the tests administered by a school psychologist or private evaluator may still have subtle learning differences. These differences often become more obvious when we do not support them in how they learn best. Our kids can be excellent at using their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses—a good thing, right? But we need to be aware that it's happening and support them in using their strengths.

How do we know what's going on when they underperform at school? Standardized testing is a crude tool, nowhere near as good as special education testing at sussing out what's going on. (In fact, FairTest.org provides a very eye-opening criticism of the value of standardized testing. And increasingly, colleges and universities are dropping the ACT as a requirement for application because it is a notoriously poor predictor of college success.) Testing to see what your child has learned is important, but your child's learning differences may be subtle—and that can significantly affect how well they test as well as how hard they try to do well. When testing is taxing and done too often, they can start to give up trying.

Consider the sensory piece of testing. For a child with visual processing differences, taking a test using a booklet and pencil is a very different experience from taking the same test on a computer. Clicking boxes accurately may be easier than coloring in those bubbles with a pencil if a child has a fine motor challenges. Keyboarding may be easier than handwriting or vice versa. If your child's test scores on standardized tests are inconsistent, you will have to dig deeper to find out what is really going on.

Talk to your child about the testing process as well as any learning challenges he may have. Go over classroom tests with him. You might be very surprised to learn that he struggles in a particular class because of the lighting, the glare on the "Smart Board," or the emphasis on auditory processing of language. In conversations with my son about a test he took in class, I learned that to him, "McCarthyism" and "Joe McCarthy" are indistinguishable because he stores and retrieves those terms as visual images. "Check Google images, Mom," he said. "They're the same thing."

Recently, I had my son watch me as I tried some of the games on Understood.org's website to see how I fared when the computer simulated learning differences for me. Wow, was that frustrating! Try a few yourself.

In fact, try them with your child sitting next to you. Have the conversation about what she experiences in a classroom environment. Listen, don't interrupt, and don't contradict her even if you're surprised by what she's reporting. In this way, you might pick up on subtle learning differences that may not be so obvious. Then, whether or not you follow up with further testing, you have vitally important information about subtle learning differences and can better advocate for your child at school.

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