By Terra Vance
Hi, I’m Terra Vance, NeuroClastic founder, parent, and former English teacher of 14 years. I’m also autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, apraxic, and I have a few learning disorders.
I want to share what I’ve learned through the years— as the former student who didn’t make sense to teachers and as the former teacher who understood my neurodivergent learners— so that you can skip a lot of the trial-and-error and discovery I’ve worked out through the years.
I was that child with the “spiky” skill profile
A lot of people don’t know this, but visual processing deficits and motor planning deficits are why reading can be such a chore for some people— especially autistic, ADHD, and dyslexic children and adults.
As a very young child, at age two, I was diagnosed as “gifted;” however, it became clear once I was in school that the label meant very little. I struggled a lot with most things we did in class.
We knew that I was dyslexic, but not so much what all that meant. I wrote my letters backwards. My hand cramped severely when I would write, I couldn’t color in the lines, couldn’t write neatly, couldn’t read a clock, and couldn’t tie my shoes.
I really struggled with reading and worksheets.
Then, mysteriously, at the end of every year, I would score very well on standardized tests. Like 99th percentile.
This just convinced everyone that I was lazy and not trying.
It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that I had any reading fluency. Fluency means being able to read at a smooth enough pace that I could comprehend what I was reading. I was the last person in my class, by far, to master basic reading fluency.
Then, it wasn’t until I was well into my career as an English teacher that I would figure out why reading was such an impossible chore for me as a child, but I scored so well on standardized tests.
The print on those tests was huge— like 24 font. There were only about two questions per page, and this was before those sheets with the rows of tiny bubbles. I simply had to fill in the bubbles beside the correct answer, and the choices were spaced so far apart that I didn’t need to be neat about it. As long as it was clear what answer I was choosing, that was all that mattered.
Visual processing and eye tracking deficits
The reason I did so poorly in elementary school was because of apraxia, or dyspraxia— two words that basically mean motor (movement) planning deficits. Gripping that pencil and controlling it was way harder for me than for most kids because I struggled with getting my brain to carry out purposeful movements.
Other things that were easy for my peers were really hard for me, like getting dressed, tying shoes, jumping rope, and other fine and gross motor tasks.
But there’s also the motor planning skill of eye tracking and the cognitive skill of visual processing. Simply, it is a motor (movement) planning skill to get your eyes to move easily from word to word, then from line to line, to input visual information.
I did so well on those standardized tests because the font was way larger, there was more space between lines, and the pages were way less overstimulating.
For most of my class work, the pages were too busy for my eyes to process that much information, and trying to visually process took up so much focus and energy that I couldn’t also comprehend the text. It was like trying to read in a different language.
If I could pronounce the words, that didn’t mean that I could put them together to make them mean something, too. It was so much work to process the visual input that no processing power was left for reading comprehension.
If you’ll notice, NeuroClastic articles have lots of white space— that is there are a lot of short paragraphs and no super long blocks of text. This is because it makes it easier to process, visually, for all our readers with eye tracking and visual processing deficits.
Call in backup!
You can work with these visual processing and motor planning deficits by engaging the auditory processing to do the labor of comprehension while your eyes practice tracking, or following text from line to line without losing their place.
This removes the burden of comprehension from your weakest system— visual processing— and gives it to a stronger one, auditory. It’s like calling for backup. Once you master eye tracking, comprehension is much easier.
Audiobooks are a great way to do this, as long as you pair them with large-print physical copies of the same books. To start, try to choose books with more space between words, in the margins, and between lines.
As a teacher, I wrote grants for a class set of MP3 players, but any smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer can work with audiobooks. And the best part is, you can set the pace of an audiobook to read much slower than natural speech for the beginning stages.
A great series to start with that even older readers enjoy is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. A lot of neurodivergent kids love these books, and only part of that is due to the relatable characters. There’s also a lot of space between the lines and a font that’s easier to process.
The following image is a page from the series, for reference, taken from FunBrain.com.
For some kids, by the end of the first book, they’re bored of the slower speed and ready to kick it up a notch. Let your kids tell you when they’re ready for faster playback and remind them that they can slow it down if it’s exhausting them.
Reduce auditory and visual distractions
Even for people with great auditory processing, trying to read at the same time is really going to tax the brain. You can reduce the auditory processing burden by using quality headphones or earphones that limit or eliminate background noise that can distract from the focus needed to comprehend the material.
If you’re in a messy, visually overstimulating environment, try to reduce visual stimuli, especially if there’s anything moving in the environment. If you’re walking up and down the aisles of a classroom, if you have a fan blowing loose papers on the wall, or anything spinning in the room, your students with visual processing deficits are going to have their eyes constantly attending to moving objects and away from their work.
And remember, you are a moving object.
Visual overstimulation, especially from moving objects, will also cause a constant, low-grade anxiety that prevents learners with visual processing deficits from being able to focus.
Because moving objects require more processing, it activates the autonomic sense of threat in the environment. Because they have to manually process visual input, anything moving or changing in their visual field will feel like a threat until they’ve done that work to process it cognitively and consciously.
For this reason, driving when it’s raining or snowing may be extremely stressful for anyone with visual processing deficits.
A cluttered desk or people too close in proximity will also contribute to visual overstimulation.
In my experience with over a decade of classroom experience using MP3 players to accompany hardcopies of books, students often become bored with audiobooks after a few months because they’ve mastered eye tracking and can read more quickly than the audiobooks— besides, those narrators all begin to sound like chipmunks after you ramp them up to 1.5x the speed of natural speech.
Keep in mind that if someone has auditory sensitivity, a high-pitched or nasal-voiced narrator may be so unpleasant to them that they can’t listen to that book. Deeper-voices and narrators with a calming energy work well for some kids. Other kids like very emotive narrators who have an exaggerated reading style and lots of vocal expression.
For readers with auditory processing deficits, narrators with an accent may be hard for them to process.
For readers with hearing impairment, narrators may need to have a higher or lower toned voice for them to be able to hear it for comprehension.
Often, for people with auditory processing deficits or hearing impairment, engaging both the visual and auditory processing at the same time can help with auditory and visual comprehension.
Another tip is to reduce the volume on your television to where you have to work a little and focus harder to hear it, but also turning on captions. Captions don’t always get it right, but the auditory processing will usually fill in the gaps. The captions can help your visual processing system learn to keep up and your eyes to have the motor planning acuity to follow text at the speed of speech.
Making your television just barely loud enough to hear and using captions is a nice brain hack to get you to use your eyes to follow captions.
A lot of autistic adults use captioning all the time because it helps relieve the burden of auditory processing.
Reassure kids that they can pause as often as they need to catch up, rewind, or just take a brain break.
Don’t worry about “age appropriate” books to start if all you can find with larger print are for younger children. You won’t lower your child’s intelligence by starting with simpler books.
Besides, I’m 41 and very much enjoying reading picture books with my five-year-old daughter. You can find a lot of really profound and “deep” books in the primary school section of the library.
This might or might not work, but it definitely won’t hurt to try
These tips aren’t going to be successful for every reader because visual processing and eye tracking may not be why reading is a struggle, but they definitely won’t hurt to try.
Multi-modal or multi-sensory learning makes education more accessible for everyone. It’s not a “crutch” to engage other sensory systems when learning to master a skill, and it won’t make kids reliant on audio.
As with all NeuroInclusive education, teach your children why you’re using these brain hacks and let them know we all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to processing. Teach them the language of sensory so that they are able to self-advocate.
Trust me, as someone who grew up being accused of laziness and not applying myself every day, I can assure you that it would have been much better for my mental health to not have spent so much of my formative years learning that I was just not trying hard enough.
I’ve spent my whole life unable to go an hour without working because I panic and feel that I’m just being lazy. I can’t do leisure without guilt, and I can’t help but to think it’s because my childhood was spent in desperation to live up to neuro-normative expectations without any of the accommodations I needed.
I believe I have slept an average of three hours per night through my entire adult life. The trauma of being unaccommodated as a child is no joke to live with as an adult. This is one reason we are generally against behavior therapies— they accelerate the same kind of “just try harder” messaging we had as children.
You don’t want your child to grow up to be me. I promise.
Level up your accommodation game, learn about sensory processing from the inside by reading adult neurodivergent experiences, and give your children the tools and self-knowledge they need to self-advocate and understand the ways they are different.
Want to know how it feels to have a processing deficits? It is like trying to keep up with friends walking around a track, but your legs are the length of a Dachshund.
Processing is extremely hard work for people with deficits in a sensory systems, so finding ways to use more dominant sensory systems as “backup” is an all-around winning strategy.
Terra Vance is an industrial and organizational psychology consultant and founder and CEO of Neuroclastic, a website that provides information about the autism spectrum from autistic people. Her passions are in the intersections of social justice, equity, literature, Truth, and science. Read the original article here.
Photo by Matias North on Unsplash