Sometimes what we think is a reading problem is really a sensory integration problem.
Sensory integration means sorting through all the input from our senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste or feel—into a meaningful message in our brains. Sometimes too much sensory data clogs our brains, causing problems. On an airplane, for example, some of us can easily tune out the baby crying and the plane bumping through clouds. But others are ready to scream.
A child might show sensory integration issues if the cat is purring is too loudly. Or the new shoes are too tight. The bath towel is too scratchy. The banana texture is too squishy. Bathtub bubbles hurt . The label inside the T-shirt tickles.
If you child has sensory integration issues here’s how you can help her focus when reading:
- Motion: Make sure she is sitting in a still, comfortable place where she is less likely to fidget. No gliders or swings. Not in the back seat of a moving car. Make sure her feet are supported.
- Sound: Eliminate noise distractions. Turn off the TV and radio. Put the dog in his cage. Stop the washing machine. Seclude your child to the quietest part of the house. If there is still noise, turn on your hair dryer or your vacuum cleaner to provide constant, steady “white” noise which obscures background sounds. One of those recordings of waves or a mother’s heartbeat meant for new babies might also help.
- Sight: Face a plain painted wall if possible. No wallpaper with designs. Draw the blinds. Surround the child with calm, soothing colors like pastels, whites or tans. No oranges, reds or bright pinks. Choose picture books with plainer backgrounds so the child’s eyes know what to focus on.
- Touch: Dress the child in soft, comfortable, nonbinding clothes. Remove shoes and socks. Have her sit on a smooth or pillowy surface—nothing scratchy. If you are with her, cuddle if she likes but keep some distance if she prefers not to be touched.
- A trick an occupational therapist taught me: To settle the child, scratch her back for a few minutes. Begin at the neck and scratch straight down the backbone—not sideways and not from the bottom up, but from the top of the spine to just below the waist. Scratch with your nails hard enough for the child not to feel tickled but not roughly enough to hurt. (This is a great technique to help a baby relax to fall asleep, too.)
In the next blog we’ll talk about some modifications a teacher can make to a classroom to help children with sensory integration issues to prevail in school.