This is the million-dollar question posed to every pediatric occupational therapist. The answer is as simple as why the chicken crossed the road. By nature, all behavior is sensory. Behavior is how one reacts to a stimulus. Our actions are based on how the nervous system responds to a situation. Children with sensory processing difficulties frequently misinterpret and incorrectly process information from their world. What this often leads to is increased stress and a primal fight or flight response.
What can we do to help with these behaviors? Well let’s first not assume that what we are seeing is “bad behavior”. It is important to analyze what stimuli is present. Is there a clear sensory trigger such as loud noises, abrupt changes in visual stimuli, or an unexpected transition to an unfamiliar environment? If so,
- Do not force engagement in this situation.
- Also, try your best to mirror the behavior you want to see from your child.
- Exhibit calm and regulated emotions as much as possible.
- If necessary, remove stimuli or change the environment. This may mean simply lowering the lights or removing the child from the situation for a short period of time.
Did the behavior change? Continue to change the environment to elicit positive changes in behavior. You can also implement sensory strategies on the spot. Many of the deep pressure strategies such as bear hugs, hand/head squeezes, wall push-ups, and so on can be very beneficial in these situations.
Most important of all when understanding sensory needs is learning from your child because he or she is unique from any other. Reading others experiences and strategies is helpful but keeping a simple journal of causes of behavior and what works to curb behaviors can help immensely. Seeing patterns in what triggers behaviors can help avoid putting your child in situations that overwhelm their sensory systems.