By Brian Bersh, University of Delaware
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) has gained public attention since the 1970s. Despite the lack of empirical evidence proving the efficacy of SPD, many occupational therapists now specialize in sensory integrative therapy that addresses the teaching of children with learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, and intellectual disabilities. Sensory processing disorder continues to receive public support and interest, and there are therapeutic applications within the field of music instruction.
Most children’s sensory processing skills develop naturally, as pathways within their nervous systems continually refine themselves, integrating the five major senses to provide functional meaning through sensory experiences. According to the theory of sensory integration, a spectrum of under-responsive and over-responsive individuals exist who either do not receive enough sensation, or are overloaded with sensations, causing intense reactions to environmental stimuli.
Much of the cause for this dysfunction in sensory processing is attributed to the vestibular system, which governs auditory and visual function. Specifically, it controls one’s sense of movement and balance, and orients body awareness. It also houses the proprioceptive system, which enables us to feel pressure in our movements. One’s tactile sense, as well as the sense of taste and smell, remains independent from the vestibular system. In order to develop body awareness for children whose sensory processing is ineffective, a number of activities have been developed that utilize functional play. While these activities were initially directed toward a specific population of learners, they can benefit all children in the context of a music classroom.
For many children who have sensory processing disorder, the first time that they may experience body awareness is while wearing weighted backpacks, vests, or blankets. Therefore, the value of “heavy-work” is accounted for. Larger, heavier beanbags add more weight to the movement of your students. Many push, pull, and resistance-based activities can be performed with a partner in class. Accentuating music activities through the use of a therapy band, pushing your hands together in a prayer-like position, or pushing against a wall are other proprioceptive activities that can develop sense of pressure.
Extending the repertoire of props used in music class can provide a sensory base for your activities. The use of inexpensive paint brushes to paint or wash one’s body, or musical toys that have a variety of textures can further attract students’ attention through their tactile senses. With all of our body’s senses keenly attuned to the world around us, it would be a mistake to assume that music engages only our sense of hearing. The more able we are to adapt our teaching to engage the full attention and body of the learner, the more effective our learning environments will be for all children.