Credit: Courtesy

While going back to school is often a stressful time, it can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent students. 

Neurodivergent students are those with differences in their mental functions, including those with autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and social anxiety. There is a strong correlation for students with sensory-processing issues ― including sound, light, and touch sensitivities ― and an increased need for movement and deep pressure input. 

Beth Kanne-Casselman, a Santa Barbara Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, works with neurodivergent children and adolescents. “Many of my young clients have movement, auditory, smell, and taste sensitivities,” she said. “Frequently, sensory processing interferes with self-regulation and self-confidence. They can often be proprioception-seekers, which can present relational difficulties unless we work to help them learn about this and manage these sensory needs.”

Lisa Serby, MA, OTR/L | Credit: Courtesy

“Sensory processing” refers to the way our brains receive and organize information coming into our bodies. Sensory-processing difficulties occur when our brains are unable to adequately assimilate the information and make sense of it. “Self-regulation” is the ability to maintain one’s body at an optimal level of alertness appropriate to a given activity and environment. 

While children typically learn about the five senses, there are two “hidden” senses that people don’t typically discuss. They are “vestibular,” which refers to how we process movement input, and “proprioception,” which is how we process deep pressure input to our muscles and joints. 

“Proprioception-seeking” refers to those who engage in increased movement against resistance or pressure in order to regulate themselves. “Proprioceptive input” ― everyday activities that incorporate lifting, carrying, digging, squeezing, pushing, and/or pulling ― can often be helpful to assist students in achieving the “just-right” level of attention for work or play. It is beneficial in a variety of situations because it can help one become calmer or more alert, as needed. 

Dr. Karen Johnson, head of the Knox School of Santa Barbara, states, “Our gifted students ― as part of the neurodiversity community ― often do have sensory processing issues and sensitivities. … I find it important to identify the needs associated with such issues or responses and honor/validate the ‘sensory superpowers’ that some of our kids have while working with them on strategies to help meet those needs.”

Here are several strategies for students with sensory issues to help with the transition back to school:

  • Provide an “About Me” letter. “Before the first day of school, consider writing an email or letter to your student’s teacher(s) to introduce yourself and your student: their strengths and passions, their challenges, and what works/doesn’t work,” advised Kara Nicol Rocque, an ADHD+/EF/2e and K-8 math coach.
  • Offer sensory breaks that provide proprioceptive input. It is important that students be supervised to ensure that the activities are appropriate for their size and weight. Examples include digging in wet dirt or sand, building with heavy blocks, manipulating Play-Doh or modeling clay, and climbing on a play structure.
  • Incorporate outside therapies as needed, such as occupational therapy, which can help change the student’s nervous system and educate and train parents to provide the input students need.

Back-to-school strategies that help neurodivergent students may in fact benefit all students returning to school post-COVID. A recent U.S.A. Today report described how “kids’ attention spans are even shorter since the pandemic” and it noted the high number of students “who are severely behind in reading and math yet can hardly sit still.”

Lisa Serby, MA, OTR/L, founder and director of OT Arts, is a licensed and registered occupational therapist. She has dedicated her practice to the safety and well-being of Santa Barbara’s children and families for more than 19 years. She treats students with sensory processing difficulties and fine motor, self-help, and gross motor planning issues.


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