Addressing the Sensory Needs of Today’s Exceptional Individuals


by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

The entirety of 2020 has certainly been an interesting year so far! For many of us, including our exceptional individuals, it has been a year that has caused much higher levels of anxiety and frustration and a genuine fear of what is to come. The sudden shift out of our normal routines in March caused enough confusion for everyone. The concern now of “when will these restrictions ever end?” and a lack of understanding as to why, has increased the susceptibility to escalations and meltdowns in our exceptional individuals. Because of this, it is important for us to acknowledge a greater need for sensory supports in all environments!

Back in August, School Health was honored to have Dr. Maria Frankland present a webinar, “Meeting Students Where They Are: Trauma-Informed Approaches in Post-pandemic Classrooms.” Since then, I have seen many other educational groups and counselors discuss the need for trauma-informed approaches both in school and at home. Having worked with a number of Psychologists and Counselors over the last several months, there is an agreement that many individuals are experiencing levels of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, better known as PTSD. These levels appear to be heightened not only in our exceptional individuals, but also in teachers and parents who are trying to balance hybrid and remote learning styles along with their regular lives. These issues are unique and unprecedented, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution as to how we can support everyone. These issues are not solely related to life in the United States either. I was recently asked to speak at an International Virtual Parent Summit on the topic of sensory processing issues and how to deal with them. The pandemic is a global matter and what we are experiencing here in the U.S. is similar to many other countries around the world.

So what can we do? The first step is to re-focus on ourselves and take the time we need to relax. I know that statement seems out of place to some and you may think, “shouldn’t our focus be on our children or exceptional individuals?” While a significant focus should be on them, if you do not focus on yourself first, you cannot be fully present to them. We may also be experiencing levels of PTSD and not even recognize it and as neuro-typical adults, we have sensory needs too. Our needs may consist of a variety of different approaches, though, and finding time for some meditation, yoga, walking, or even some reading for personal growth is important. Offsetting that time with herbal tea, water, or other healthy drinks, keeping up on sleep, taking vitamins, and eating well can help us maintain our physical health as well. I know I sound like an ad from a health clinic, but these are important things we need to be doing for ourselves. Our world is full of so many additional stresses beyond the pandemic, and it is important to separate from those stresses first. Once we have taken time to care for ourselves, we can then begin focusing on other individuals.

There are many sensory items that can be easily shifted from one environment to another, making it easy for hybrid and remote learning. Those of you who have heard me speak know that there are a number of different fidgets that are portable and make no noise. Products like the Tangle Jr., Boinks, and even Chewlery bracelets can offer some unobtrusive approaches to releasing kinetic energy and getting a positive sensory stimulation. Weighted items can also be beneficial when used with the guidance of an OT. I am a firm believer that any weighted item that an individual might be using should never be more than 10% of an individual’s body weight. The great thing is that many of the weighted products available come in multiple weights and are great for setting on a lap or even laying across shoulders.

Visual schedules and visual timers also fall into the sensory category for our exceptional individuals.  Using visual timers help to give parameters to an individual as to how long they have to complete a task. Visual schedules can help to balance the idea of a routine in their minds too, just as we like to have visual calendars. Visual schedules can be as easy at having times and pictures on a piece of paper or dry erase board right above a digital clock. The neatest visual timer I have recently seen is the TimeTimer Watch PLUS® which is unobtrusive and functions as both a digital and hand-based watch. It also has an alarm function and the ability to shift into a visual timer. Creating this visual sense of time is important for all individuals and can help to alleviate anxiety associated with daily activities.

The environment around us, like light and temperature, is also an important in sensory feedback. Rooms should have comfortable amounts of light between windows and lighting. Too much or too little light can cause overstimulation, headaches, and a distracting from learning. Temperature also operates in the same way. Although neuro-typical adults might understand the concept of layering so that the clothing fits the temperature, that is not an easily accepted concept by some of our exceptional individuals. Maintaining consistency in temperature helps their bodies adjust over time and creates an “environmental routine” they can get used to.

In addition to light and temperature, certain furniture in sensory environments can help stimulate an individual’s focus and concentration, and even allow for some relaxation. Bean Bag Chairs can be relaxing and fit into almost any environment. Cushions can help an individual adjust to chairs and give them the sensory feedback necessary for creating a calm environment to focus. Pillows may also be placed on chairs, on the floor, or even in the lap of individuals to give them a soft place to sit or rest their hands. The old idea of having individuals sit in an uncomfortable chair to keep their focus and reduce distraction is not a good approach anymore. 

In the home setting, items like sand hour glasses can be used as effective visual timers. Bags of dried beans or rice can be used as a weighted lap or shoulder pad. Pencil grips, duct tape, and VELCRO® strips placed in appropriate areas can become unobtrusive sensory areas. Sensory feedback comes in many different ways and watching how the exceptional individual responds to certain products is important to understanding what might work best. It is best to stay away from items that make too much noise or have a lot of visual stimulation as these objects tend to keep the mind racing and do not always permit full sensory release. 

As educators, therapists, administrators, and even parents, we must begin to accept that having a fidget, a weighted item, a cushion, or some other sensory item is okay. We need to move away from the immediate reaction of telling that person to “put that away” and instead, see how the individual is using it to help themselves. If it keeps them calm and focused, then it can be a great learning tool for them. If it becomes a distraction, see what else might work better. Sensory items are more important now than ever before. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all,” it is important to find objects that work best for each of your individuals. And remember that it is perfectly fine for neuro-typical students (and adults) to use items like this too!


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter