Jul 262011

There are so many ways sensory processing disorder can look like bad behavior. A parent really needs to know what he’s looking at to determine the cause of the behavior as well as judge if it is being done purposely or not.

Here are some examples I see every single day:

A) Lateness:

Nobody likes when someone’s late and holding them up. It can get annoying and frustrating when it’s the same person every time. It may appear as if it’s being done purposely or that the child just doesn’t care about anyone else but the truth is that children with sensory issues go at their own pace and don’t know what it means to rush. Their arms and legs need to go at their own pace so as not to cause burnout. Telling them to get dressed faster, take a shower faster, brush their teeth faster, wash their hands faster, only results on frustration from both sides. If a parent wants the child to move faster, he  needs help moving faster. Help him complete whatever he is supposed to be doing- if that means shampooing him quickly, turning on and off the water for him and getting the towel ready, getting out the toothpaste and squeezing it onto his toothbrush, helping him get dressed.

When the parent doesn’t realize what’s going on and becomes frustrated, the anger and annoyance builds and the shouting and criticizing can start. On the child’s side, he gets annoyed at himself for not being able to fulfill the task and his self-confidence starts to deplete. Resentment starts building up towards the parent especially since there is no good way for a child to explain what’s going on inside him. When an adult asks a child to do something quickly, the last thing he wants to hear is “I can’t,” but that is the plain truth and not one the child has a solution to.

B) Clumsiness:

It’s hard to be around a clumsy person. It’s harder to be a clumsy person. Children with sensory processing disorder who have their vestibular and proprioceptive functions playing tricks on them, have a hard time not being clumsy. It’s just the way they were created, the way their brain works. As a result, their motor skills are awkward, they can’t really tell what will happen if they do xyz, and they don’t know how much strength to put into simple everyday things like: picking up the sugar bowl, getting the milk out of the fridge, or even using a pencil or crayon.

They are also scared to be clumsy so they avoid a lot of situations. My son once tripped in the bathroom and split his chin open against the bathtub. It wasn’t the biggest deal, he only needed a few stitches, but it’s never happened again because he’s learned to be extra careful- too careful.

Another biggie that I see every day- children with sensory issues might not be able to tell how close they are to someone or something near them. Their judgment is off. Bumping into people or things is so typical.  “Ma, he bumped me again!” is one of the most used phrases around here.

C) Hitting and aggressiveness:

This is a tricky one because while it’s absolutely not okay to hit or be aggressive, children with sensory processing disorder don’t have much control over this. It is also a very common childhood behavior and too easily learned.

A parent needs to learn to judge the child’s intentions. My son wouldn’t hurt a fly but if there were too many people around for too long, he’d start attacking. He really truly has no wish to hurt anybody and would end up crying from overstimulation just as hard as the hurt child was crying. He knows it isn’t the proper thing to do but when guests came over and stayed too long, he went berserk. We learned pretty quickly to avoid the crowded, noisy situation with him. Of course we made sure he understood that hurting another person is wrong- we didn’t even need to tell him again, he knew it so well. The reason why he couldn’t control himself is because the executive function, the part of the brain in charge of making decisions and thinking before acting, is extremely weak in these children. The impulses are very strong. So it isn’t hard to understand why they act compulsively without a second’s thought about what they’re about to do before they do it.

On the topic of overstimulation: Being overstimulated also causes hyperactivity. In fact, many diagnoses of ADHD are really SPD. When you see a child bouncing off the walls and not spending any energy, the first thing that comes to mind is ADHD. But it may be simple SPD and the overstimulation acting up again.

One time my sister-in-law was over and she saw my son hyper AKA overstimulated. She kindly offered to take him out to run around the block a few times. I thanked her and replied: “I wish it would help but he’d come back just as hyper.” Hard to believe and kind of funny to think about, but all the same amount of energy is still there even after getting some exercise.

Back to hitting:

Sometimes the child will feel the need to physically push another child away or even hit to discourage another child from bothering him. A child with sensory processing disorder can’t feel the strength he is putting into his arms or legs, so before he knows it the other child is crying hysterically and everybody’s asking him why he felt the need to hit/push/kick SO HARD.

Again, we need to check our child’s intentions and get the full picture of what went on.

This point is similar to what I wrote above under Clumsiness. And it can happen in so many different types of everyday situations.

If a child is learning how to crack an egg and he slams it and it splats everywhere, that may not be bad behavior.

If a child is trying to stand on line to wait his turn and has bumped those around him, he may not be trying to hurt anyone.

If a child says he CAN’T do something you’ve asked of him, consider the very real possibility that he can NOT.

D) Wasting food:

Because of extreme oral defensiveness, the child with sensory issues may seem stubborn or lazy when he refuses to eat what’s in front of him. Parents don’t want to throw hard-earned money in the garbage and also don’t want to hear “I’m huuungryyy!” ten minutes after eating.  So we may be tempted to save the food for the next meal and threaten he’ll never eat anything again until he eats this food, but trust me, there is no good end to this. These children don’t care necessarily about the way the food tastes, but about the way it looks and smells. This is because the olfactory sense (sense of smell) is off. Therapy can rectify this but in the meantime, a picky eater is a picky eater.

Here are some examples of picky eating from my home and from what I’ve seen of other kids too: no eating any food that touched another food, no mixing foods, no mayonnaise, no remnants of any food on the plate before putting more food on, no foods that turn the plate a color (here it’s beets- it turns the plate red), no ketchup or sauce, and the list goes on.

Frankly, we had some pretty crazy meals when my son was younger. It got better when he was old enough to serve himself the foods he liked and to put them on his plate where he wanted it. Now when he starts the complaining about whatever it is about his plate that’s bothering him, I put up my hand and simply say: “Please take care of it by yourself. You’re old enough to.” That is his cue to go to the kitchen and wash his plate to make it like new or whatever other solution he can think up.

D) No volume control:

As a result of ears processing wrong information, a child with sensory issues may not be able to regulate how loud or low his voice comes out. Adult asks child to use a quiet voice, child continues using his internal microphone. This causes trouble when the child is in a place where low, whispering voices are necessary- the library, the museum, inside a store.

It can also cause embarrassment for the child who may not be able to judge the distance between himself and the person he is speaking to, and will either speak too quietly, resulting in “What?” “I can’t hear you,” or speaking too loud, leaving everyone around him why he is speaking so loud. This is also very common when speaking into a telephone.

E) Tantrums:

That should really read “meltdowns.” Tantrums are a breeze, meltdowns are a hurricane. When the tantrum has lasted over half an hour and there’s still no sign of calm, you know it’s a meltdown.

Meltdowns occur when the child refuses to go against his sensory difficulty. Parent insists, child refuses. Parent pushes further, child starts to holler and jump, kick and scream.

This is not just stubbornness, it is the child being forced to go out of his comfort zone which has been created around his sensory difficulties. This isn’t just bad behavior either, the child hates every second of the meltdown and wants to find a way to stop it.

It is possible to break a child if the parent so wills it, and so parents must be extremely careful.

A parent can help a child to calm down by figuring out what is calming for the child. It can be deep pressure or swinging or listening to music or a mix of them. It will also help to know what the triggers are and to avoid them. If by mistake the child is triggered, it is good to quickly distract him with a joke or story in order to stop the meltdown in its tracks.

Any rash attempt to force the child into submission will extend the length and intensity of the meltdown or eventually break the child’s spirit. A responsible parent stays far away from these methods.

It is up to the adult to keep the calm and maintain the calm, and eventually through therapy, the child will learn how to deal with his emotions and frustrations, as well as become more accustomed to the sensory experiences the average person has. This is how the meltdowns slowly fade out as the child matures.

To sum up, the child with sensory processing disorder needs to learn proper behavior but will absolutely learn nothing by us telling him dozens of times. Therapy will teach him and until that happens, patience-patience-patience, so that we don’t destroy his self-confidence or build up a brick wall of resentment between us. Only when a parent understands the child’s intentions and difficulties, can he deal with it all effectively.




  6 Responses to “Behavior difficulties and Sensory Processing Disorder”

  1. I the efforts you have put in this, thank you for all the great content .

  2. I’d love to read more about “impulse control”. My son with sensory issues burnt himself last night on the toaster oven because he could not stop himself from testing it. He’s almost 5 and definitely old enough to understand the danger. I’m thankful it’s very minor (it took me a while to figure out what hurt him about his finger until I saw the blister; he was afraid to tell me because he knows it’s wrong)…he wants to do the right thing, but his body acts separately from his mind.

    • Oh no, my 3 year old did the same thing last week. He’ll never do it again.

      Does your son learn from his experiences? Do you think he’s learned his lesson or he’s likely to do it again?

      Impulse control belongs to executive functioning. It had us stumped for years. Still does sometimes, but not as often as MeMe’s finally learned that action -> consequence. It only took 5 years or so. We still have trouble with him hitting for no reason, it’s completely compulsive. This was just a few days ago and in trying to make him understand I had to be strict with him. He kept saying: “It was an accident, I didn’t mean it,” and I know that’s his way of saying he didn’t plan to hit, it was all impulse. So I can’t punish him and I can’t let him get away with it either, so I’m still stumped. I do tell him that when he keeps doing it by accident, it becomes not an accident anymore, but I know that’s not fair.

      There are vitamin complexes that are supposed to help executive functioning, if you click on the “Vitamin complexes” tab above, you can see them. I would have gone that route if the impulsiveness was more severe, but I didn’t want to do that yet. I wanted him to learn, for it to become a part of him.

      I’ve seen some programs on Amazon, a curriculum made for kids with ADHD to teach them to control their impulses, but I doubt it works very fast. I also posted yesterday about http://www.modelmekids.com, which has a video program designed to teach executive functioning. I think it’s for older kids though, 9 years old and up.

  3. Yeah, I think my son is still young for much “outside” help…I was told to wait until 6 before considering his “quirks” as problems that need treatment. He does have a phenomenal memory and for some things he has gotten it ingrained over time action -> consequence, but it takes quite a few times. He still has a lower degree of danger awareness than he should and will run out into the street impulsively, something my older one was easily taught as a toddler. (A couple of weeks ago he ran across the street because he said his father lets; I said his father lets after they look both ways and see there are no cars. My husband backed me up on this 🙂 No concept whatsoever, and I have caught him almost hit by cars before.)
    So he definitely will learn hot -> burn, but it might not be ingrained in him until he has a few more negative results unfortunately…and if it’s not ingrained, his memory is not being accessed when he lacks impulse control.
    I definitely see that he is more impulsive when he’s lacking of sleep. He needs the most sleep of all my kids, and I’m blessed that this one actually falls asleep fairly easy. It’s like a switch turned on when he’s tired and he changes from being a sweet, sensitive boy with sensory issues to one who is overloaded with everything and has no control whatsoever.

    • I am an occupational therapist (OT), and the research actually shows that the earlier you get in for therapy, the better! Your son may not have a “diagnosis,” but if he does have functional limitations, OT is a great solution. The faster you get therapy, the less therapy you will likely need. Impulsivity is one thing that OTs work on a lot!!

  4. Hi

    What type of therapy helps with this type of disorder?



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