The hard part of having a child with sensory issues is trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand. The way schools are set up today a child must be very outgoing and social to be considered successful. Schools didn’t used to be so pushy about being social. When I was little, I don’t remember having to crowd around the teacher on the floor each morning. We sat at our desks, facing forward and listened to her directions.
The world today is full of sensory input that wasn’t there when we were kids. The library was redesigned few years ago, it had strobing/trailing lights at the entrance to the new Children’s wing. I wrote to complain about how hard that would be to those with sensory issues and now I find the lights are pleasantly steady. I am sure I wasn’t the only parent who complained about that particular issue.
Schools have changed too; I remember the only input at school was the back of the kid’s head in front of me, the teacher at the front of the class, and maybe the smelly kid in the next row. Now all the desks are grouped together with the children facing one another, and someone sitting on either side. How hard is it to concentrate on your lessons when you have others looking at you and what you are doing all the time?
The memories I have of kindergarten are: a large room full of kids, two classes with a partial divider in between “classrooms. There was also a giant gym where we also ate lunch. First grade I remember a field trip and a visit from a herpetologist with a very large snake. It was surprising to me that the snake wasn’t slimy, but had dry scaly skin. We had our desks arranged in a U shape, with a child on either side of me. I remember being put at a table in the library for some of the school day to do workbooks on my own. I loved doing that! When I finished early, I got to draw as much as I wanted.
We moved and I ended up in a room full of kids, all desks facing front. The new school had the same big gym they also used as a lunchroom. The playground had a giant fenced athletic field for us to run on during recess. Second grade, I had no major sensory issues aside from starting music class. Third grade, they had two rooms open to each other, with a partial divider like the kindergarten set up from the old school. I was overwhelmed again. I don’t remember much else besides all the noise from that classroom. Fourth grade was back to a single classroom, desks lined up again. That arrangement made it easier for me to focus. I was moved to different rooms for some classes, with a bunch of other kids. That made it hard to settle down and concentrate, but it wasn’t over the top. Fifth grade was again divided classrooms, also the switching for different math and reading classes. The best part about Fifth grade was the classrooms were adjacent to the library and we could go out there and look for books or read, if we finished up our lessons early.
Sixth grade – Middle School. What a sensory nightmare! We still all faced forward, but there was switching out rooms for almost every class. I remember being relieved to only have to go to the next room over and not through the maze of hallways with the crowd of kids to another room. Having to deal with a locker in a “locker bay” was hard, it was loud and crowded and learning how to operate a combination lock was tricky. I eventually figured out a work around and only went to my locker during quieter times. Gym class was in a gigantic gym and now we had swimming. I never liked swimming, the whole putting my face in the water was disconcerting to me. Now I had to deal with the echoes in the pool area, the sharp smell of the chlorine bleach, the itchy suits we were required to wear. Ugh, it makes me shudder remembering it all. It was always a relief to have physical education outside. Lunch was thankfully in a lunch room, smaller than the gym we ate lunch in during grade school. I eventually adjusted to all the sensations of middle school.
Next came High School. It was truly an overwhelming nightmare. Switching classes with hundreds of other kids at the same time. Lockers slamming, stairways crammed with kids going in both directions. Every time someone bumped into me I was on alert. I took to carrying a large tote bag to cushion the impact. Eventually I learned to use the back stairs in each wing of the school, but sometimes that made me late. We still all sat facing forward in rows except for geometry and art. The gym wasn’t just huge it was ENORMOUS. I hated gym and the locker room most of all. The smells from the cheerleaders using Ben-gay for their sore muscles, the perfumes and hair product smells were enough to gag me.
It is telling that almost all the sensory memories are unpleasant. I learned to accommodate the overwhelming input over time, but it was helpful not to have to face other children when I was trying to pay attention and learn. It was also helpful not to have lunch in a gym and I was very thankful for those back stairways in high school. Being able to avoid the crush of the other students was one of the few things that made it bearable. Over time I have outgrown some of my sensory issues, and some have become more apparent. It makes sense to attend to the school environment and make accommodations when possible for our sensory sensitive kids.