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Sensory Integration and Learning Frequencies

Sensory Integration and Learning Frequencies

Imagine if our brains were like old radios. What if each student in your class had a different learning frequency? Many students with autism have sensory integration issues. That is they may have a low or high reaction to sensory stimuli. For example, some of my students with autism prefer certain computers because they are less noisy. Some of my students hear the buzzing of lights in a room where others do not. Sensory integration issues are also common with students who are identified as gifted and talented.


Many artists have Synesthesia like Kandinsky had. He could hear music when he painted. Every color had an instrument associated with it. He actually heard a symphony when he painted and that's why he titled some of his paintings as compositions.


I wonder if sensory integration issues are related to neurological oscillations?


Wouldn't it be great if educators thought of (dis)abilities in terms of learning frequencies, rather than (dis)abilities? I think that framework would be a more accurate one. Also, finding ways to make our antennas more accurate. We need to develop more accurate tools to tap into these diverse learning frequencies. Currently, many of our students' brains are ahead of the technology we need to tap into their talents. What kinds of technologies do you think can help teachers tune into diverse learning frequencies? Google Glass is an example of current technology that can help teachers to tap into students' learning frequencies. For example, Google Glass allows the wearer to record what they are looking at. Teachers can use these recordings to observe how the students are perceiving their surroundings. This is an area I'd like to pursue with my research. There is so much to learn about sensory intergration and learning frequencies!


We just need to tune in!







Image Reference:

Geocaching A Cache by Meekee. 8/28/12 [Photograph of an old radio]

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Wow! Thank you so much, Bernard!! : )


I was diagnosed with some kind of sensory integration dysfunction a long time ago. I can't remember who by or what for. The thing that's always bothered me though is that depending on how I want to characterize the aspects of my existence relevant to the diagnosis, I can make a pretty strong case for both of the mutually exclusive conclusions: that I do and that I do not have anything that one might diagnose as SID. In fact, if you are selective enough you can probably make a strong case for most people having many sorts of disorders. I think this is partially your point: people want to ask where on the spectrum do we draw the line between order and disorder, but really there is no spectrum, just difference; attempts to force analysis onto a linear spectrum will only result in misclassification.

So the question you pose is "What kinds of technologies do you think can help teachers tune into diverse learning frequencies?" It has struck me in my encounters with the scences of perception that the greatest technological deficit lies not in the motherboards but in the metaphors. like Kandinsky did not, I must imagine, actually hear symphonies when looking at his paintings, because the literal experience of such "hearing" would be incompadible with the activity of viewing a painting--if you speak to him while viewing a painting, will he be able to hear you over the symphony? Does the symphony start over when he blinks? Play backwards if he scans the painting the wrong way? He may have strong symphonic associations with the components of his compositions, the neural wiring may be all mixed up, but the metaphor of hearing blows the actual nuances away for anyone he talks to and perhaps even for himself. I am synesthetic with letter-color associations. E is yellow, V is green, A is red, N is purple. That's how I always used to write my name tags in kindergarden. However, I do not "see" these colors when I look at letters. My visual perception is unaffacted. I just associate the colors with the letters strongly. I don't know who created the graphic on the wikipedia page for synesthesia, but it gives 100% the wrong impression of that form of synesthesia as experienced by myself and the handful of friends I have corresponded with on the matter. Perhaps there are those for whom letter-color associations impose themselves on the visual field and obscure the actual perceived colors--my survey of the literature and evidence is hardly extensive--but what I can say is that I often see artists who work with synesthesia as a concept taking very large liberties with how they describe the phenomenon itself precisely because the idea of mixing senses is such a powerfully romanticized vision of what art and the artist are.


More generally, returning to other areas of perception, learning, memory, I think you said it all in your first line: "Imagine if our brains were like old radios." Learning, memory, etc are not single atomic things, though I think the simplifying demands of quantification tend to obscure that in psychological literature, and I cannot see google glasses or any other technological artifact being of any use to educators without an understanding of reality that demands a practice that such artifacts can facilitate. Before we can know what sort of radio to build, we probably need to know the frequencies it will need to tune in to. What has your experience turned up as far as what some of those actual frequencies might be? I think that is the operative question above what kinds of radios can tune in to them.


Yes, metaphors matter, and your proposed replacement is excellent.  Thank you for taking the time to share/write this.


Hi Evan, thanks for this great response to Mechelle's post. She is an inspiring teacher who specializes in this area and who I think will be fascinated and in agreement with what you say.  I personally have a cultural theory of brain biology.  That is, since infants pay attention to everything, and since certain patterns of attention are reinforced or undercut depending on cultural norms, historical moments, the particular "ideolect" of a family, and ideological norms and economic requirements, I don't think we have any ways of knowing what is or isn't a disability or even a condition except in relation to others' expectations and our own and the match or mismatch between those expectations and our desires for our own success in that same arena.    That is, certain traits are vauled and others not and the relative value means rewards or punishment--or honor or shame--some of the time but not other times.  


Our language for even talking about the blend of senses is so poor that it's not even clear that, when you talk about synesthesia, if you mean representation or perception (although I am deconstructing that distinction even as I write it).  The diagnosis is useful only in that provides some relief to understand a constellation of differences.  I was 27 when I was diagnosed with dyslexia, way off the charts in fact, but I already had a PhD and had worked for a year at Fermi National Accelerator Labs where, I swear, at least half the people I worked with would have been more extreme on those same tests than I was but probably none of them had ever been tested either.  They were simply "geniuses," not LD.  In their world, their inability to go from the main room where everyone worked to the men's rest room without running fingers along the braille-like markers in the wall was not even remarkable (this is a true example); they were trying to make a bidirectional supercollider and that ability to think in terms of translating pure physics into engineering was the "test" of their abilities.   Not being able to remember the way to the bathroom simply wasn't "important."   Nor was it even remarked upon that enough had this issue that the wall had markers on it.   Until I went with a friend's child and took the test, I would not have remarked on it either.


Diagnosis and diagnostic relief are hugely important---but categories that are constructed.  That's my two cents.  Thanks as always for your insights, Evan.  Great to hear from you again!









you for  sharing your experiences with dsylexia and for sharing about Fermi Labs.



When you note "I’m still learning each and every day.  I try my best to find ways to connect with each student," would you mind elaborating on what form that has taken? What are some of the kinds of obstacles you have encountered, or particularly unique communicative situations? Common themes to their solutions? I have not had much engagement with the types of learning and communication that play out in a classroom instruction setting, as is I think generally evoked by the notion of a learning disability, but have been thinking much about the kinds of communicative requirements of collaboration, organization, persuation, policy, and science that occur beyond the boundaries where we stop using the label of "learner" in the learning disability sense. I wonder what the connections might be, and would be very interested in however you can characterize the types of communication and connection you are describing.


Hi Evan,

Great questions! Regarding your questions, “Would you mind elaborating on what form that has taken? What are some of the kinds of obstacles you have encountered, or particularly unique communicative situations?”

I take a multimodal (multisensory) approach to teaching.  First and foremost, essential to connection and communication is that students need to know their teachers care. Also, we need to create a safe learning environment where students aren’t afraid to take risks. This lowers the affective filter so that more learning may take place.

I am inspired by the works of Seymour Papert, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, John Dewey, Maria Montessori (whose birthday on was born on, which I think is really cool), and William Glasser’s Choice Theory.

I try to learn each student’s learning frequency in that I pay really close attention to what stimuli they respond to and the way they respond. This is especially so when I am working with non-verbal students. I sometimes will videotape vignettes of learning. When I worked with teens who were in my severe and profoundly mentally handicapped (SPMH) class, I video tapped a lot. This is so I can look at learning not only as a teacher, but as a scientist. (My undergrad was psychology with a biology minor and I originally wanted to be a pediatrician before I went into education. I think my undergrad training helped me a lot with my teaching. I try to think like a scientist and am passionate about my work like a scientist.) With the videos I would look for patters. I am a reflective teacher and try to hone my craft. Sometimes teaching special education is like solving many puzzles and I learn something new each day.

With that as Glasser points out fun is essential to learning.  I use a lot of art, technology including traditional assistive tech and other digital media including video games, music, dance, signing, sometimes hop like a kangaroo, and teach with puppets. For example, Puppets are great when working with young children with autism when teaching making eye contact.

As far as the obstacles, like students teachers who are divergent thinkers often get punished too. I am still navigating my way to work in and around the system. Often in Special Ed, the resources are limited too. Sometimes schools want sped teachers to teach from a script.

The most unique obstacle I faces with regard to communication was potty training a nonverbal teen. Often many forget that special education teachers teach functional skills. Sometimes people give up on students and don’t encourage them to be independent because it is “easier” to change a diaper for example than to train a nonverbal teen how to use the restroom. Special education teachers take on the roles of nurse, OT, and PT because we see the students more. This student’s mom asked me to please help her with her son. She was having a difficult time and the other teachers didn’t help with this regard.  As such, I used Picture Enhanced Communication System (PECS), augmented assistive tech, took pictures of the restroom, used cartoons and made a power point. Also, I used sign language, Cheerios, and a lot of praise.  It was challenging to potty train a nonverbal student but he learned and his family was very happy! Also, he was very happy because he had a sense of independence that he didn’t have before.  I treated him as if he were my own child.

I hope that somewhat addressed your questions. Let me ask you, what are some ways that you think teachers could do a better job connecting with students? Thank you again! : )


So happy to see discussion of sensory integration & learning here at HASTAC.  Parenting a child who was, at one point, diagnosed with sensory integration disorder (she progressed to a whole panolopy of DXes -- 11 in total by the time she was nine!) was one of the most helpful things for my own teaching.

My girl was, early on, acutely aware of certain pitches of sounds.  For example, when she was an infant I had a messenger bag with velcro closures that I used for a diaper bag. Wrong choice for her. If she was sound asleep in another room and the bag was opened on the other side of the apartment she'd wake up screaming.  That velcro sound was excruciating for her -- even through 2 doors.  She seemed to know when the trucks on Houston Street were going to use their air horns before I did -- she startled before the beginning of the blast that the rest of us hear.  One of the reasons we chose the school she attended for elementary school was because they put tennis balls on the feet of the desks and chairs so they don't make that horrible screeching sound when you move them.  

But in terms of teaching, the most interesting thing I learned from her was that despite the fact that she learns most effectively through the visual channel, the only way she could listen to spoken instruction was to stare out the window. If she looked at the teacher she could not pay attention to what they said.  But if she looked out the window, and, I can only assume, focused on something distant, she could attend to the auditory information in the classroom (and at home).  She still listens better when she doesn't have to make eye contact.  The eye contact is too distracting.

So I can never again assume that the student who is looking out the window or elsewhere isn't paying attention.  They may be paying attention the best way they can.  (Or I may not be giving them anything interesting enough to look at in class, so I'd better up my game!)  Neurotypical sensibilities (and prejudices) about proper ways of paying attention and proper ways of learning aren't even helpful to neurotypicals. These preconceptions keep us from learning how others learn.


Yeah that's interesting. Those symptoms describe me pretty well too. Lots of difficulty with/hypersensitivity to certain auditory stimuli, and I find it very difficult to listen while making eye contact.


And it's amazing how strong some of our conventions of politesse,--like making eye contact while talking--can be. When avoiding eye contact serves the role of connection and respect that making eye contact is (one might imagine( supposed to support, it can be difficult to acknowledge and really run with that. A key word to listen for I think is 'consideration.' Despote much reflection I still have no idea exactly what it means to 'be considerate.' What I have come to suspect, however, is that there is a strong and widespread tendency to accept rituals of consideration rather acritically, and therein lies the seed of a huge amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth when the demands of individual needs clash with the requirements of social convention. To the extent that teaching requires a connection or understanding, I must imagine that really examining preconceptions about acceptible conditions for interaction would be a high priority. Faulty expectations seem to be at the root of a lot of problems where all parties would be best served to discard them, or that's my take anyway.


Hi everyone, I just left a link to this conversation on the HASTAC Scholars Forum running right now on Dis/Ability.  It's wonderful.   And they will learn from this conversation here  Make sure to check it out.  I'm trying to knit these two threads together:


Hi Micki, Evan, and Cathy,


Wow! This is a great conversation! I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner. We have family visiting from Florida. Hope you all had a nice Easter! Also, Happy Autism Awareness Day!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I love the perspectives you share!


Micki, thank you for sharing about your daughter. That must have been so tough that she had so many DXes as a child. That is really interesting what you shared about the velcro being really loud through two doors. Also, that is great that you found her a good school. The tennis balls on the chairs really helps! It is good that the teachers are sensitive. How is your daughter now? I hope she is having a good school year. Thank you for sharing.


Also, you all make wonderful points about eye contact and listening. You guys all got me thinking. I sometimes feel like I have two roles in the classroom being a teacher and a scholar. As a special teacher, we are to help students with sensory integration issues. For example, for our students with autism we help with communication and eye contact is one of the areas we work on. Many students families especially want to help their children make eye contact and act “neurotypical” like their other siblings as quickly as possible. Many parents aren't as understanding, patient, and sensitive as Minki is with her daughter, which I admire greatly. There is a pressure for special education teachers to "fix" children, and that's why the average burn out rate of special education teachers is 3 years. Over 50% of special ed teachers leave the field at the 3 year mark. There is a high turn over rate. Therefore, many special education teachers lack experience. Further, to be a professor of education, one does not need to have K-12 experience. Some of my professors never taught a day at a public school in special ed, they researched special ed, but never tried to work within the system. The expectations placed on special education teachers with limited resources can be overwhelming. We have to find ways to encourage one another and work more with families and physicians in the community to have more of a holistic approach.


Indeed, Evan, you make an excellent point when you say, “Faulty expectations seem to be at the root of a lot of problems where all parties would be best served to discard them, or that's my take anyway.”


I totally agree! Expectations can be really tricky. Further expectations vary from one setting to another. One of my favorite special education professors said that there are some children that had what he called a 6 hour (dis)ablity, in that once they were outside of school, they didn't have a (dis)ability in the sense that it would hinder them. I thought this was really interesting.


However, with sensory integration issues it affects one across settings and it can be very painful. I wish that special education teachers could work more hand-in-hand with physicians. I truly believe that SpEd needs to embrace the medical model. However, some believe it goes against the push for inclusion, which I don't agree with. I believe they can go hand-in-hand. Some folks go to extremes with inclusion forgetting the medical needs some of our children have. Also, many may not realize that most General Education teachers are not trained in Special Ed, yet there is a push to put more children with (dis)abilities in a General Education setting. Gen Ed teachers aren't trained to deal with medical facets of (dis)abilities like changing a trache or inserting a cath. Many of our school nurses are overburdened that special ed teachers do these activities. Further, the paraprofessionals (teacher aides) only need a high school diploma in many states. Therefore, they are not trained. We are often putting our most fragile children in the hands of those with the least experience. But I digress.


Let's go back to sensory integration and consider neural pruning. Our children's brains are still developing. With children with autism their brains grow at an accelerated rate until age 12 and the brain reacts with atypical pruning. It is like a rose bush growing in a pot that is too small. Some of the brain become over developed, which contributes to the savant super skills quality and other parts become underdeveloped. Wouldn't it be wonderful if teachers and physicians paired up and see how we can work together to further understand learning and neural development? Hopefully, one day we will have a new model of special ed where there is more collaboration. There is so much to learn. I am hopeful.

Thank you very much again Micki, Evan, and Cathy! Have a great day! : )