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What Does Behaviour Have to do with Sensory Systems?

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Have you ever wondered, “What does my child’s behaviour have to do with their sensory systems?” I’ve been there, feeling like pulling my hair out because of these seemingly strange behaviours my child has. My introduction into the world of Sensory Processing Disorder (though at the time it was called Sensory Integration Disorder) came thanks to our oldest daughter, Miss Optimism.

How is behaviour affected by your child's sensory systems?Miss Optimism was what people referred to as a busy child, always moving and often getting into mischief. She would spin around and around and around and never seemed to get dizzy. She would strip off her clothes in winter to put on a bathing suit just as we were about to walk out to door to get groceries. When we finally did get out the door to go shopping, she would reach out and touch everything on the shelves and even sometimes touch people as we walked past.

She had a freakishly high pain tolerance and it would sometimes lead to injury as she also seemed to have no concept of danger. She broke things by accident because she wasn’t aware of her own strength. One of the many things she broke was the necklace I had worn at my wedding.

She would have meltdowns for what seemed to be no reason. She pulled down all the decorations in her room and started to pick holes in her walls.

She was the pickiest eater I had ever met. She didn’t seem to have any attention span and would flit from one activity to another, leaving a huge mess behind her everywhere she went.

She preferred to be upside down to being right side up. And upside down is how I was starting to feel my life was while I tried to figure out how to parent her!

It wasn’t until I got a phone call from her preschool teacher asking me what her diagnosis was that I realized that these things were not typical behaviour for a child her age. That began my entry into the world of Sensory Processing Disorder. We began working with an OT. In using her suggestions and adjusting things in our home, the changes in our daughter were significant and immediate.

The more I learned about sensory, the more I was able to recognize that her challenging behaviours were actually sensory responses. I could then give her strategies to help her cope. And in making changes in her environment, she was able to find moments of calm and learn how to better express her needs.

One of the first steps in making adjustments in your home and in your expectations is to better understand what behaviours are related to sensory needs. It is important to also understand which sensory system those needs relate to.

If you understand which sensory system is at play, you can implement sensory solutions specific to that sensory system in order to target it and reduce “behaviours”.

I find that it is helpful to think of behaviours that result from sensory needs as side effects instead of purposeful behaviours. They are simply a side effect of our child getting too much or too little of the “medicine” (sensory input of that sensory system).

When we determine what our child is getting too little or too much of, we can adjust the dosage accordingly.

These are just a sample of examples to help you determine your child’s sensory needs. Each sensory system has other “side effects” as well but these should give you a good idea of what to look for.

As you can see from this list and the behaviours I described in my daughter, it is possible and in fact probable that a child can show seeking behaviours for some things and avoidance behaviours for others.

You will also see that some behaviours like chewing on clothing can be representative of more than one sensory system, so you will have to do some detective work to discover which system is at play and how to meet those sensory needs.

To get your free Sensory System Behaviours Easy Reference Cards and be included in a 5 part email series Sensory Solutions and Activities, simply sign up here.

Tactile Avoidance Behaviours:

  • avoids mess
  • dislikes dirty hands
  • has difficulty with tags in clothing or seams in socks
  • avoids hugs or physical contact
  • avoids certain textures
  • dislikes crowds
  • dislikes having hair combed or washed
  • gets upset over light touch
  • is a picky eater
  • does not like to be barefoot

Tactile Seeking Behaviours:

  • has a compulsion to touch everything
  • needs to fidget
  • has a high pain threshold
  • is unaware of mess on hands or food on face
  • enjoys playing with their food
  • prefers tight fitting clothing
  • is physically aggressive with other kids (pushing, hitting, pinching)
  • craves vibration

Visual Avoidance Behaviours:

  • covers eyes or squints
  • avoids bright lights or sunlight
  • is skittish of moving objects
  • avoids making direct eye contact
  • suffers from frequent headaches
  • gets dizziness or nausea from visual stimuli
  • has difficulty differentiating colour tones
  • can seem clumsy
  • rubs eyes
  • has difficulty determining distance

Visual Seeking Behaviours:

  • has difficulty focusing on objects
  • frequently loses place on the page
  • stares at bright light or sunlight
  • stares at moving objects
  • moves and shakes head during fine motor activities or schoolwork
  • holds items closely for examination
  • seems unaware of new changes in familiar settings
  • seeks visual stimulation such as patterns and ceiling fans

Auditory Avoidance Behaviours:

  • is distracted by background noise
  • gets upset by sudden noise
  • becomes angry or emotional because of loud noise
  • covers ears
  • dislikes common noises such as toilet flushing or vacuum cleaner running
  • gets upset by high pitched noises

Auditory Seeking Behaviours:

  • creates loud noises
  • uses their “outdoor” voice indoors
  • screams
  • listens to loud music
  • leans closer to noise
  • is calmed by white noise such as a fan or a sound machine
  • makes noises out of household objects like tapping a pencil on the table

Olfactory Avoidance Behaviours:

  • gags at certain foods or smells
  • avoids specific smells
  • becomes visibly upset by strong smells
  • comments on the smell of people or places
  • avoids people or situations because of scent

Olfactory Seeking Behaviours:

  • feels the need to smell things
  • prefers foods and objects with strong smells
  • does not differentiate between “safe” smells and “dangerous” smells
  • smells people and animals
  • explores the world through scent

Oral Avoidance Behaviours:

  • avoids brushing teeth
  • avoids certain food textures
  • gags, chokes or drools
  • avoids trying new foods
  • has difficulty using a straw
  • has problems chewing or swallowing

Oral Seeking Behaviours:

  • likes chewing or sucking on items such as pencils and clothing
  • likes spicy food
  • likes very hot or very cold food
  • chews nails
  • has a clear preference for certain foods
  • might enjoy licking non-food items
  • might have a problem overstuffing their mouth

Vestibular Avoidance Behaviours:

  • may seem clumsy or uncoordinated
  • may appear stubborn
  • has a dislike of movement activities
  • might be fearful of elevators
  • does not like stairs or clings to the railing
  • has a fear of being upside down
  • might have dislike of playground equipment

Vestibular Seeking Behaviours:

  • has a hard time sitting still
  • is constantly in motion (fidgeting, spinning, rocking, moving)
  • goes “full force” in movement activities or sports
  • might be impulsive
  • runs rather than walks
  • takes risks that can potentially lead to injury
  • hangs off the couch or chair
  • likes to be upside down

Proprioception Avoidance Behaviours:

  • avoids active activities such as running, jumping and climbing
  • can be a picky eater
  • avoids touch
  • desire to do familiar activities
  • can have difficulty using stairs
  • can seem uncoordinated
  • can appear lazy and lethargic

Proprioception Seeking Behaviours:

  • unknowingly uses too much force
  • stomps or walks loudly
  • difficulty with body awareness
  • bumps into objects, walls or people
  • kicks, bites, hits, or pushes
  • prefers tight fitting clothing
  • chews on objects such as pencils or clothing
  • gets into others’ personal space
  • excessively physically affectionate
  • does not realize own strength and may mistakenly break things

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