Is it just behavior or is it sensory?

Many kids are living with sensory processing difficulties that impact their ability to self-regulate at home, at school, and in the community. While some children on the Autism spectrum exhibit difficulties with sensory processing, not all children that have sensory processing difficulties have an ASD diagnosis. It is important to address a child’s specific sensory needs, regardless of diagnosis. Some children exhibit maladaptive behaviors that appear as “attention seeking” or avoidance of a task. But what are these kids really trying to tell us with their behavior?

Behaviors are often a form of communication for children, or non-verbal messages. For example, if it is too loud, a child may cover their ears and run (telling us that it is too loud for them). Or, if a smell or taste is too strong, a child may elope from the table (telling us that it is too overwhelming or tastes bad). In addition, we must consider the motor demands or the physical challenge of a task when interpreting behaviors. For example, a child might avoid a task or become easily frustrated if an activity requires too much mental or physical effort for the child (i.e. balance, endurance, coordination, sustained attention). The child’s responses or attempts to communicate then appear as maladaptive or undesirable behavior. Occasionally, what begins as a sensory issue that is unresolved or left unaddressed can turn into a cycle that perpetuates a certain behavior.

Behaviors are MESSAGES. Adequate sensory processing is the foundation for all higher level cognitive tasks, in addition to executive functioning, self-regulation and communication. Supporting a child by validating feelings and providing coaching through problem solving can go a long way. Talk with your OT today about behaviors that seem tricky to deal with, for assistance in identifying strategies to address them!

The videos below explain two systems involved in sensory processing and how they can affect children’s perceptual experiences and behavior: the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

Video explaining the ways the proprioceptive system affects sensory experience and behavior.
Video explaining the ways the vestibular system affects sensory experience and behavior.