How to Use Multisensory Learning to Teach Kids with ADHD and ASD

Posted by Krystie Yeo on

Think back to when you were a student. 

Do you remember running your fingers through cold spaghetti as you grappled with the sense of touch? Can you remember tasting colorful apples? Do you recall shaking recycled easter eggs and using your sense of hearing to guess the contents?

Sensory experiences are memorable! Many of us have even taught a Five Senses unit ourselves! Why do so many teachers take the time to encourage students to learn with their whole brains and bodies, only to return to worksheets the next day?

Multisensory Learning is a highly engaging way to add sensory experiences into regular classroom instruction.

Are you looking for ways to keep students with ADHD and ASD engaged across the content areas? Read on to learn about what multisensory learning looks like in the classroom!

What Is Multisensory Learning?

Multisensory learning is any educational activity that involves the use of two or more senses.

Think about your sensory-seeking students. Imagine how they would respond if given a chance to learn through touch and movement!

Multisensory approaches let you teach in a way that addresses the particular strengths of their students. They are always thoughtful and explicit. 

When we discuss the senses, we speak about them in terms of modalities. These modalities are visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic learning. We sometimes shorten them into the acronym VATK or VARK

These modalities are like languages. Some of your students will be better at processing information through one modality over another. The first step in using multisensory instruction is to identify student strengths. 

Multisensory Learning should not be confused with Howard Gardner's learning styles. The truth is that different students will respond to different modalities at different times. A student who needs tactile support during math may prefer auditory support for reading comprehension. 

Ideal multisensory learning combines the modalities in interesting and novel ways. As always, differentiation is important, with the goal being to engage students and trigger memory. That's what makes adapted books, with visual and tactile elements, effective tools in the special education setting. 

Sensory experiences help students build and maintain synapses in the brain. This leads to retention. It helps students to make connections and build new knowledge. 

What Is Visual Learning?

Visual learning is learning that involves the sense of sight. Many of our special needs students may already rely on visuals to communicate. If you use a visual schedule in the classroom, you already have experience using visuals to support your students. 

Students who use social stories make sense of the routines using the pictures. Those students learn visually. 

What Is Auditory Learning?

Auditory learning is learning that involves the sense of hearing. Auditory learners need to hear something to understand it. They may be students who prefer audiobooks or who pick up new concepts through music. 

What Is Tactile Learning?

Tactile learning is learning that involves the sense of touch. It involves the active manipulation of materials. The velcro pieces used in adapted books are an example of a multisensory tool used in tactile learning

If you use manipulatives to teach math, you already have some experience with tactile learning. 

What Is Kinesthetic Learning? 

Kinesthetic learning is learning that involves movement and the proprioceptive senses. Students who "can't sit still" for direct instruction might benefit from kinesthetic activities. These students learn the best while in motion.

Often, kinesthetic activities look a lot like games! 

Hands-on Activities to Try With Students

If you come from a school where most teachers swear by workbooks, it may be hard to visualize multisensory learning in action. Once you understand what activities can look like across modalities, you will find it a lot easier to develop your own! The goal should be to combine these modalities to reach all of the learners that you support! 

Activities for The Visual Learner

Visual learners need to see to understand, but they may also use visuals to express what they know. A visual learner might create illustrations to go along with reading activities. This can help your student demonstrate comprehension.

Students might expand on their learning by choosing images from magazines or clip art collections. They can use them to describe story elements through collage.

Activities for The Auditory Learner

Auditory learners need to hear to understand. A listening center is a great way to keep your auditory learners engaged. Auditory learners also love to reinforce learning by listening to appropriate educational podcasts. 

Your auditory learners can even practice their oral language skills by creating their own podcasts! Students love to listen to recordings created by their classmates!

Activities for The Tactile Learner

Tactile learners thrive in a world of touch. Making manipulatives available in the classroom is key to keeping these learners engaged. Sorting is an excellent way to assess tactile students. 

You can implement many tactile activities in the form of task bins. Explicitly curated tactile materials can help your struggling students connect to the material. It involves the students in the learning rather than keeping them "in the audience." 

Activities for The Kinesthetic Learner 

Kinesthetic learners need to get up and move, or they find it hard to process information! Instead of a task book, these students might prefer to sort pictures into hula hoops all around the classroom! A 'four corners' freeze-dance game is a great way to assess students who need to be in motion! 

Drama is also a great way to connect with your kinesthetic learners. How can you provide opportunities for your students to embody characters or important figures? How can they use their bodies to show what they know and understand?

More Senses Means More Engagement 

Multisensory learning is the key to engaging diverse learners with ADHD and ASD. Any sensory modality might be a particular student's area of strength. When you work to understand how your students learn, your activities will get them excited about content! 

If you're looking to implement differentiated multisensory learning in your classroom, AdaptEd 4 Special Ed has materials to get you started! We sell adapted books, social stories, task bins, and other materials that special education providers love! Browse our store to find your next favorite adaptive tool for the classroom!