Can’t we all relate to sensory complexity?

Guest post by Peggy Palmer, TVI*

Can’t we all relate to sensory complexity?
Can’t we all relate to sensory complexity?

Too often, we “typically” sighted folks tend to believe that children with Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) are very different from us. We learn the Ten Characteristics (Roman)–hopefully–and work our way through trying to understand our student or our child with CVI.

But we are not all that different from our kids. Sometimes it is a matter of degree.

A quick story:

This past winter, I had a bad case of the flu. High fever, muscle weakness, felt terrible. In the middle of it all, a gift arrived from a family member – an electric toothbrush. I had been excited about getting one, but not happy about being so sick when it arrived. The flu was so severe, even my mouth had been sore.

Determined to give the new toothbrush a try, I staggered into the bathroom one night, fever and all, slathered on some toothpaste and turned it on. I was immediately stunned! The vibration was intense! It actually hurt! The noise was too loud!  The bathroom light was way too bright! I could barely hold myself upright! I could not keep the brush in part of my mouth for the proscribed length of time. Oddest of all, I realized my eyes were squeezed tightly shut. I even told myself, “Open your eyes!” and could not do it.

Where would this experience put me on the CVI Range?

Responds only in strictly controlled environmentsBrushing my teeth with my familiar toothbrush, with the lights off had been working well for me, during the bout with the flu.

No regard of the human faceI could NOT manage to open my eyes and see myself in the mirror.

Latency present only when the student is tired, stressed, or overstimulated.” Had someone asked me to multiply 10×22 in my head during that tooth brushing session, I can guarantee you there would have been a long delay in my response time.

The next night I went right back to my old school toothbrush (novelty).

Since then I have thought about this experience many times. Now that I am healthy again, I find it odd that it was such a struggle to simply brush my teeth with a new toothbrush. Normally I can brush with my eyes open with no difficulty. I can brush for the proscribed amount of time. There is no pain or sensory overload.

But with stress, fever, fatigue and over-stimulation, my sensory system immediately began to rebel, and go into fight or flight, self-protection mode.

With so much being thrown at me at once, my body began to shut down at some of the input. If I was not going to turn off that noisy, irritating toothbrush, if my fever would not magically go away, then I was forced to end the session quickly by keeping my eyes shut. I absolutely could not tolerate any more.

Of all the CVI characteristics, sensory complexity (Roman) is probably the most crucial to understand, to adapt for, and to be sensitive to. Children with CVI cannot learn when the sensory environment is too complex. Children with CVI cannot learn when the materials are too cluttered or too visually complex themselves, to name a few. And each child has a different threshold that we must learn about so we can provide the best strategies for them to be successful in the classroom.

The strategy is not cajoling the student with CVI to do more, or to try harder, work harder, work longer. The strategy is to calm some of the noxious stimuli down so that the student can continue his/her work. The strategy is to give students with CVI frequent sensory/vision breaks, give them chances to gather themselves, let them take the necessary down time to regroup. While feverish and weak, no one came into my bathroom and said, “Open your eyes!” “Look at what you are doing!” “You need to work at this longer!” or ask, “Aren’t you done yet?!?”

This is the respect we need to give to our students and children with CVI. The respect that they deserve.

We experience hints of what our children go through all the time. We need to ensure that they are supported for their efforts, and not pushed to the brink – or beyond.

I urge all of us to think about those times when we feel completely overwhelmed and find ourselves shutting down. These moments will help us be more sensitive to our students who have CVI.

*Peggy Palmer, M.A. Peg is a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) working at Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind (BESB) in Connecticut for over 20 years, specializing in young children, ages birth to five. Peg is a Perkins-Roman CVI Endorsee.

One thought on “Can’t we all relate to sensory complexity?

  1. How true, how true! I have never been able to tolerate arcades. When my kids were young, they knew to not even ask!


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