Autism, SPDs, and Headphones: What to Do When Classroom Headphones Are a Sensory Trigger
Events that are run-of-the-mill for neurotypical people can be completely overwhelming for people with autism or other sensory processing disorders (SPDs). If you teach kids with SPDs, you know that sensory triggers vary from person to person. The commotion of the cafeteria, the shriek of the fire alarm, the feeling of wet clothes could all be potential triggers for some of your students while being a non-issue for others.
Even wearing a pair of headphones could be a true struggle for some of your students, causing them to miss out on planned class activities. If you’ve found yourself in this position, take heart! We’ve got tips to help you be sensitive and accommodating to your students’ needs while still allowing them to participate in everything you have planned for your class.
Don’t Assume Headphones Will Be an Issue
Whether you teach designated SPED classes or blended classes, you know that teaching students with special needs always involves a learning curve. No matter how much information is in your students’ files, you need time to learn their personalities, needs, and potential triggers. So don’t assume that headphones will be an issue right off the bat.
Because many people with autism and SPDs use noise-cancelling headphones to cope with sensory overload, your student may actually love wearing headphones! Unless you’ve been warned otherwise by file information, previous teachers, or parents, it’s generally a good idea to proceed with your classroom headphone activities as normal. The last thing you want to do is single out a child with an SPD for no reason.
Reach Out to Your Resources
If you do notice that your student seems to be struggling with headphone use, reach out to those who know the student best. Generally, this will be parents, previous teachers, and your school’s diagnostician.
Most parents will be more than happy to help you navigate their child’s SPD. For them, it’s a relief that their child’s teacher cares enough to ask questions and find solutions. So don’t be afraid to seek out insights and advice if a student seemed to respond poorly to wearing headphones. Make it clear that you’re simply seeking information and want to help; parents are generally more receptive and willing to offer information when you don’t approach an incident as a disciplinary issue.
When parents don’t have any information to offer, try talking to the student’s other teachers and the school diag. Of course, if your students are old enough, they can be your first resource. If they tell you they don’t do well having things around their heads or with the noise of headphones, take them seriously and ask what alternatives would work better for them.
Offer Different Headphone Options
Usually, it’s a good idea for all kids in the class to have the same kind of headphones. It prevents fighting and pouting over color of headphones, and it keeps expensive headphones from becoming a status symbol in your class. But an SPD is definitely a reason to make an exception to this rule.
Because everyone’s sensory triggers are different, students with SPDS will respond differently to various kinds of headphones. One student may hate having anything around his head and do much better with earbuds. Another may be triggered by the feeling of having something inserted in her ears and prefer traditional headphones.
Sometimes, sound is the issue instead of touch and texture. Your student may be overwhelmed by the ambient noise of the classroom combined with the noise from the headphones. In these cases, quality noise-cancelling headphones might be helpful.
If your usual choice of student headphones isn’t working, talk with parents and your student to see if they’d do better with an alternative. Something as simple as a different material for the ear cushion can make all the difference.
Let Your Students with SPDs Bring Their Own Headphones
Offering different headphone options might mean that your student will bring his own headphones. Even if you normally stick to school-provided headphones, this is absolutely a time to make an exception.
Sometimes, kids with SPDs will struggle with newer items more than ones they are familiar with. They may have a much easier time with headphones they brought from home, even if they look and feel similar to the headphones in your classroom.
Or they may have a special type of headphone that’s modified for their SPD. Cozy Phones, for example, are helpful for kids who don’t do well with the harder texture of headphone bands.
Offer a Space to Listen without Headphones
If headphones are simply a no-go, make sure that your student can still participate in the same activities as his or her peers. When possible, you could simply have them do the activity at a low volume without headphones. If you use headphones frequently in your classroom, you may want to designate an official “listening spot” for your student.
If the noise would be too much of a distraction even when the other students have headphones on, plan in advance to find a space outside of your classroom.
If You Suspect and Undiagnosed SPD, Talk to Your Diag
If it hasn’t come up in your career yet, it probably will. You see a student who exhibits signs of an SPD or another challenge, but you can’t provide accommodations because they aren’t diagnosed.
While it’s never appropriate to “diagnose” a child yourself or suggest a diagnosis to parents, you can talk to your school’s diag about your concerns. He or she will gather information from other teachers and talk to parents about possible testing when necessary. Sometimes, nothing changes, and it’s a frustrating place to be for both teacher and student.
While you may not be able to provide official accommodations like extended time to these students, you can make small exceptions here and there. Offering a different choice in headphones or a space to listen headphones-free are small allowances that could make a huge difference for your student.
How have your students with SPDs handled using classroom headphones? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!