Sensory Advocacy at School

Amanda Bailey

Amanda Bailey

About the Author

In the IEP or 504

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 head off 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 issues. Is the busy environment causing the student to get distracted? The student may need to come in a bit before or a bit 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 would be able to support your student. “Preferred seating,” “access to flexible seating,” and “movement breaks as needed” are all too vague. Preferred seating is what is preferred for the student, not the teacher, for instance. 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 they are listed specifically in the IEP or 504 plan.

When providing sensory-related accommodations, 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 take place in the spring and early fall to ensure a student is set up for success at the beginning of the school year. This can also be 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 a sensory-related accommodation may be when they are least able to request it due to feeling overwhelmed. Natural opportunities for regulation can be built into the school day. Having a student be a designated equipment carrier after gym, for instance, 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. 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 and things we avoid to stay comfortable. Non-Autistic students also benefit from permission to move as they need, stand, stretch, or draw at their desks to attend to 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 with educators a list of items they need to create sensory-friendly spaces for all students. This should be done with an OT. 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 protecting 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 painters’ tape.
  • Some caregivers have successfully advocated with PTOs or local parent networks to implement sensory-friendly periods ahead of community events. Starting off in a low-key environment before others arrive can help acclimate students to a space and ensure they can participate.

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