Sensory Processing and Behavior / by Laura Kett

When I am contacted to help with challenging behaviors, I am often asked:  is it behavior or is it sensory based?  In other words, when a child has a challenging behavior, could it be that there is a sensory component?  My answer is “probably.”

Luke exhibited a lot of “bull in a china shop” behaviors:  he was always bumping into his peers, knocking things over, slamming doors too hard and breaking his pencils.  He was often in people’s faces and could not grasp the concept of an “indoor voice.”  He often was the child who had recess taken from him (his favorite thing) and he was the child who needed it the most.

We all process sensory information.  We react to our body’s movement, smells, touch,  tastes, what we see and sounds around us.  We make choices based on our preferences:  shower or bath, exercise or sit in a comfy chair, fast food fries or home roasted potatoes, all cotton clothes with a loose fit or snug fitting athletic clothes.  Time of day, stress or our health can alter these preferences so that we may react to loud music irritably at one time and with passive acceptance another.  So although we all have patterns, our preferences may vary or we can compensate.  For example, if you are at a meeting and the voice of the presenter is irritating to your ears, you may step out a minute and get a drink or just doodle on your paper.

Children, however, are more likely to react in a visible way and their way of dealing with something noxious to them may result in what we see as challenging behaviors.  Don’t like the noise?  Put your hands over your ears (good compensation!) and scream (not so good).  For Luke, he craves pressure into his joints so he loves opening heavy doors and carrying the groceries (great activities) but he also pushes his friends (not a good choice).

When looking at challenging behaviors in children, it is generally valuable to look at their sensory processing profile.  There are standardized tools used to gather information about sensory related behaviors.  The purpose is to help the adult to discern what part sensory responses might play in the cause or exacerbation of the behavior.  Not only does this help in understanding their behavior, but also helps in devising ways to intervene.  You may find out that the child can’t stand seams in her clothing so they only feel comfortable when they wear clothes and socks inside out.  Further, when you shop with them you may pay more attention to the insides of the clothing.  Paying attention to these details can affect behavior as well as relationship dynamics.

Next time we will look at some more specific sensory patterns and preferences – for you and for your child.


March 5, 2015