Becoming a Sherlock Holmes Schooler

Having watched numerous special needs children find success in the home school setting, we are convinced that home can be a great place for them to learn.  And, being parents who began home schooling our children from the beginning of their education, we are convinced that that is best for many families. The thought that troubles us most is that there may be children who have been home schooled since the beginning who are struggling in the home setting.  Dedicated, loving parents may be asking questions like, “What is wrong? Is it my teaching?  Is it my child?  Is it the curriculum? Or is it a behavior issue?” These children and their parents may be suffering unnecessarily while they struggle to figure out why school is not working for them.

In light of that concern, this article is the first in a series designed to help parents identify a suspected learning difference or other challenge.  Our intention is not to enable children to behave inappropriately.  Rather, we hope to teach parents how to become detectives and determine if a learning difference is at the heart of the matter, instead of the behavior being a matter of the heart.   We want to give parents tools to help them step back, look differently at this child whose problems may be overwhelming the family (or at least making school time difficult) and help parents focus on the underlying issues.  Nobody knows a child better than his parents.  Still, being steeped in the routine nature of the problem can temporarily inhibit the parents’ ability to root out its cause and begin to change the way it affects the life of the family.

We begin our journey with a relatively new diagnosis, one that absolutely must be identified correctly by a registered occupational therapist.  The signals listed here are simply clues to parents that this issue may be the root of a problem.

Dysfunction of Sensory Integration

We have all been taught that the nervous system is comprised of five basic senses: hearing, sight, feeling, taste, and smell.   In fact, it is also made up of three other systems: vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile.

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The Three Other Senses

1) Vestibular – Information from the inner ear that relates to body position, movement, gravity, and equilibrium.  Dysfunction in this area affects a child’s sense of his own position in space.

2) Proprioceptive – Information from the muscles and joints that allows for correct motor skills.  Dysfunction in this area can cause clumsiness or awkwardness in movement.

3)  Tactile – Information from the sense of touch not only in the hands but also throughout the body.  Dysfunction in this system may cause a child to sense constantly that something is wrong, without being able to identify the problem.

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Dysfunction of Sensory Integration (DSI) is an inability of the sensory nervous system to process signals properly and convert them to meaningful information; or the information may be processed properly, but the response sent back from the brain may not be correct.  In the five basic senses, the indications are fairly obvious—inability to hear or see being the most common.  Parents whose children have these problems are quick to correct them with glasses or hearing aids.  Finding problems in the other systems and working to correct them is just as compassionate to the child—helping him to adjust to variations in his nervous system.

The signs of DSI are as varied as the children with the disorder, but they fall into a few principle categories:

Vestibular—underactive: Child seeks thrills; climbs; spins himself or objects; loves slides; hangs upside down; does not perceive danger.

Vestibular—overactive: Child is afraid of swings, slides, teeter-totters, or anything else that moves him; may hate to roughhouse or ride in the car.

Proprioceptive—Child is a “crasher”; seeks impact; jumps on the furniture excessively; attacks pillows or cushions; runs into walls without typical pain response; possibly bangs head.

Tactile—Child is overly sensitive to touch or touches everything; rubs against different textures; plays with long hair obsessively; hates socks, clothing tags, and many foods; has difficulty sitting still.

General behavioral clues to DSI

1) Misbehaves in stimulating environments like birthday parties, church socials, grocery stores, or restaurants

2) Refuses to eat many foods, especially those with certain textures

3) Prefers postures other than sitting, especially when concentrating

Any set of new circumstances can overload his sensory circuits the way running all the major appliances in the house on one circuit can do.  He will, inevitably, blow a fuse!

Truth be known, many adults have DSI. Adults can control their own environments.  They can choose the clothing they wear and the activities in which they participate.  Children, however, do not have total control over their environments, and if the adults around them do not know to look for these signs, children are at a loss to explain themselves.

What to do

If you suspect that your child has a sensory processing problem, seek professional evaluation.  Check with your medical insurance, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), or Medicaid about coverage for treatment.  The Easter Seals organization has good therapists in many of their offices who can evaluate and make a determination.  Federal Child Find laws protect your child’s right to be evaluated by the public school system, if you so choose.  You have the right to free testing and a meeting for explanation of test results.  You can listen to the recommendations of the school personnel and reject all of their suggestions, choosing instead to keep your child at home.  Federal law also requires districts to spend a percentage of their federal funds on children who do not attend the public schools.  Each district has the right to decide how those funds will be spent.  (See p. A12-A13 in Handbook for Texas Home Schoolers.)  There is always a possibility that your child could be offered services as a dual-enrolled student, doing all of his academics at home but receiving therapy services from the school district.  Regardless, this is a way to get the testing free and find out what you can do at home to help your child.  We, ourselves, did this in one of the most restrictive districts in the state.  While we had to fight administrative red tape to get the services, we found the therapists to be warm, caring, receptive, and eager to work with us.

DSI can only be officially determined by a registered occupational therapist.  Please do not attempt to make a definitive assessment without a professional opinion.

Should your child be assessed as having DSI, two very good books to read are The Out of Sync Child and The Out of Sync Child Has Fun, both by Carol Stock Kranowitz.  Gentle reader, be aware that these books are written from a secular perspective and may contain evolutionary theories.  Nonetheless, Kranowitz does an excellent job of presenting information about DSI and offering ideas for ways to help DSI children cope with their nervous system differences.

If you have a child who is struggling, put on your Sherlock Holmes thinking cap and become a detective in your child’s life.  If you rule out DSI, look at other possibilities to narrow your search.  Read, ask questions, and search the Internet.  Becoming a detective may just put your home school back on the road you hoped to travel … or on a new, interesting journey!