When Misbehavior is Really A Sensory Need

August 2, 2018
Disability Services
Special Needs

By: Stacy Kramer, Manager Therapy Department, Broward Children’s Center

Imagine standing on a median in the middle of a highway. It is rush hour, and cars are speeding around you in every direction. You hear the blare of the engines and horns and smell the exhaust, even feel the rush of air on your skin as the cars zoom by. It is a lot stimulation for your brain to process, causing you to feel anxious, even fearful, vigilant, stressed, and on edge. 

Fortunately, though, as an adult, you may have some understanding of
the rules of the road. Knowing that traffic flows in predictable patterns
is comforting - at least you can anticipate incoming sensations. A child unfamiliar with those rules and patterns, however, would see traffic owing in every possible direction, with no way to make order out of the chaos. 

A child under that kind of pressure is not in a state of mind suited for learning math, or reading, or writing. That child would be more tempted to run than ready to learn. Yet that is the condition many of our children are in when they are asked to sit still, keep quiet, and listen. Although they may be sitting in a typical classroom, everyday sensations can feel threatening, chaotic and as distracting as highway traffic to some children. 

Sensory processing refers to the way our brains receive incoming messages from our senses and organize an appropriate motor or behavioral response. It is a complicated process, and as with all complicated processes, there is a lot of room for error. Sensory processing dysfunction can occur along with any brain disturbance, dysfunction, or injury. There is no clear consensus on how many children are affected by a sensory processing disorder, but by some estimates at least 1 in 6 individuals are impacted in some way. The severity levels can range from very mild to absolutely debilitating. 

Many of the signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder can be easily mistaken for misbehavior. For instance, a child who cannot seem to sit still might need the constant movement input in order to feel comfortable and alert. A child who never stops touching other people and objects might need to use their tactile sense to organize their space. A child who never seems to stop humming or making other noises might be trying to tune out sounds that are anxiety-provoking or scary. 

Often time, behaviors that children cannot seem to inhibit or stop, despite repeated requests and reminders, has at its roots a sensory need that the child cannot control. 

The following is a partial list of some of the indicators of a sensory processing disorder. Some people might just have one or two symptoms, while others may have many. Signs of sensory processing dysfunction can also appear inconsistently - something that an affected individual can easily tolerate one day might appear extremely upsetting on another occasion. 

Indicators include: 

  • Emotional or fearful reaction to certain noises 

  • Picky eating 

  • Difficulty sitting still 

  • Tendency to trip and fall often or bump into things 

  • Tendency to seek out roughhouse or very animated play opportunities
  • Too much or too little force used when touching people or objects

  • Avoiding touching messy material

  • Unpredictable emotional outbursts
  • Difficulty recovering once upset

  • Wearing only specific clothes or shoes

  • Difficulty straying from familiar routines or tolerating changes in plans
  • Not initiating or maintaining eye contact

  • Inability to judge personal space or personal boundaries 

Sensory processing dysfunction can affect individuals of all ages and all abilities. It is a neurological condition, meaning that it is a reflection of the way the brain is wired. Often times the most important thing that can be done to help an individual with sensory processing dysfunction is to raise the level of awareness and understanding around the condition. Many children are repeatedly told that they “just need to try harder” at school when in fact they are trying their best to cope in an environment their brains are not well equipped to handle. 

If you suspect someone you love might have a sensory processing disorder, an occupational therapist can help define the problem and outline a treatment approach. Although every person with sensory processing disorder is different, it is likely that one thing all affected individuals have in common is that they do not perceive the world the way we expect them to, and they need our support and understanding to help them cope in a world that can often appear unpredictable and frightening. 

Stacy Kramer, MS, OTR/L is currently the manager of the therapy department at Broward Children’s Center, a non-profit organization offering preschool, elementary school, and outpatient therapy to children with special needs. Stacy can be reached at stacyk@bcckids.org 


Sensory Over-Responsivity in Elementary School: Prevalence and Social-Emotional Correlates A. Ben-Sasson & A. S. Carter & M. J. Briggs-Gowan 

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2009 
https://www.spdstar.org/sites/default/ les/publications/ SensoryOverResponsivityinElementary.PDF 

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