Sensory or Behavioral? How Do I Know?
By Emily Pierson, OTR/L
Kids Place West Pediatric Occupational Therapist
Sensory processing refers to a person’s ability to take information from the environment using their seven senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, movement, and position) and interpret that information to make sense of the world. When any part of this system functions in an atypical way, the person struggles to make sense of their world. This can be a scary experience, especially for children.
Children with sensory processing difficulties often exhibit responses to sensory input that can look like negative behaviors. For example, they may refuse or pull back from unfamiliar activities or activities they don’t prefer. They may show aggression towards others that get too close, or that surprise them. They might have a hard time transitioning to a new place or a new situation because they don’t know what to expect. These children won’t improve much with typical approaches to behavior, because they are overwhelmed by what’s going on around them.
Children with behaviors that are not related to sensory processing concerns often have control over their behaviors and have a purpose for their behaviors. For example, if a child throws a tantrum because they want a toy, they are able to immediately stop the tantrum once they receive the toy. With consistent and firm boundaries, children with behaviors unrelated to sensory issues will improve.
It is important when a child is having behaviors to look for patterns. Are they showing behaviors every time they are told “No?” Are they having behaviors only when they are in noisy or unfamiliar environments? Are they having behaviors only when something unexpected happens? Once we find a pattern in their behaviors, we can identify whether or not there is a sensory concern that can be addressed with occupational therapy. If you are unsure about what is causing your child’s behavior, we recommend receiving an occupational therapy evaluation.