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Autism, The Sensory Input Diet, and Online Learning


Posted on Dec 17, 2012

Utah mother, Susan Harms, uses online learning to ensure her fifteen-year-old autistic son, David, receives an effective and stimulating education. The article describing David’s path to online learning reveals how enrolling in a virtual, space-less school, the Utah Virtual Academy,  provided her son with a fruitful, dynamic, and engaging environment – from the comfort of their home.

Susan explains, with regard to teaching at home, “I don’t force him to sit at a desk for eight hours a day because it’s impossible.” She turned to online homeschool after several failed attempts in brick-and-mortar schools, where David’s school days were too structured and his access to technology and sensory input was too limited.

Sensory input processing disorder, more commonly known as sensory processing disorder (SPD), is defined in a very informative Time article, as a combination of syndromes that involve difficulty handling information that comes in through the senses–not merely hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch, but also the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, which tell us where our arms and legs are in relation to the rest of us and how our body is oriented toward gravity.

At home, Susan allows her son to sit on an exercise ball instead of at a desk; he has a sensory swing in the basement where he listens to soothing music; she brushes his skin with a special brush used with autistic children for tactile stimulation. These “sensory breaks” allow for moments of focus which, she estimates, add up to about two and a half hours of concentration over the course of a school day at the Utah Virtual Academy.

Susan explains, “Kids with autism can feel like a kite, with their bodies disconnected from their surroundings, but the steady diet of sensory input helps David feel grounded and focus.” This concept of a “steady diet of sensory input” is very intuitive on her part; brick-and-mortar schools attempted to apply the recommended daily allowance of structure to David’s schooling – nutrients he did not need, consequently, they failed to help him learn.

Although David attends the Utah Virtual Academy from his home, he is not alone. He has a reading teacher, a math teacher, and a homeroom teacher who interact with him via Blackboard. The school even sends students paint for their art projects and dirt for their science projects.

Leaving the structure of a brick-and-mortal school allowed Susan to provide her son with an education that adapted to his needs. Her son is not just able to learn, he is motivated to learn. His mother and teacher leave us with, “Where he’s at now, it’s just remarkable …we have conversations, meaningful conversations. He wants to have a future.”

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

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