How Children on the Spectrum Can Benefit from Multisensory Learning
Benefits of Multisensory Learning
Before we continue, it’s important to address the obvious question. You might be thinking, “Isn’t most learning multisensory learning? I mean, any time you’re engaging more than one of the five senses, doesn’t that count as multisensory?”
Technically, yes it does. In literal terms, the standard fare of reading text and listening to instruction counts as multisensory learning. However, this “universal” teaching method does not account for the fact that each student processes information differently across different subjects and in different contexts. Further, this traditional method of instruction does not utilize touch or movement (kinesthetics) as highly-effective tools for learning.
By contrast, we can say that one benefit of true multisensory instruction is that, by acknowledging that every child learns differently, it helps tap into students’ learning preferences, allowing them to make stronger connections and form memories. In addition, we are then able to provide students with a wider range of ways (including touch and movement) to show what they’ve learned.
While all students can benefit from multisensory learning, it can be particularly beneficial for students who have sensory or attention issues, such as students on the autism spectrum.
Multisensory Learning and Autism Spectrum Disorder
In education there is a strong emphasis placed on visual and auditory instruction. But what if your student has auditory processing issues? What if their eyes are sensitive to the lighting in your kitchen, and as a result they struggle to focus on the page in front of them? What if they are unable to vocalize their answers, or struggle with the fine motor skills required to hold a pencil?
Typical instruction would require your student to endure many of these obstacles throughout each lesson—understandably making learning a pretty unpleasant experience for student and parent alike. However, a multisensory approach to learning would provide your student with alternate means to both understand and convey information, thus bypassing the initial sensory obstacle(s) to learning.
For example, imagine how empowering it would be for a nonverbal student to teach back double-digit multiplication using manipulatives, such as the colorful Math-U-See integer blocks! Giving students the tools they need to be successful is an integral part of multisensory learning.
Variety is the Spice of Learning
Multisensory learning is beneficial to all students (and adults), not just those with processing difficulties. This is because when we engage with something using more than one sense, it forms more neural connections related to memory, and is thus more likely to be remembered. Our belief in the effectiveness of multisensory learning is demonstrated through the Math-U-See program’s Build, Write, Say process — prompting students to first model the concept using manipulatives, write the numbers and symbols, then verbally teach back the information in their own words.
Remember — the only limitation to multisensory learning is your own creativity (or, if you’re not the creative type, your ability to look up ideas on the internet)! Feel free to make a mess with your student every now and again, allow them to move around a bit, get the dog involved, and—most importantly—make it engaging!