Many children who exhibit sensory processing concerns may first be identified as having behavior concerns. If a child is not accurately processing sensory information, then his body is not interpreting events accurately, and therefore he may “act out”. There are several reasons (depending on the child and the sensory systems involved) that cause a child to exhibit negative behavioral reactions.
Fight/ Flight/ Fright and Behavior
If a child is sensitive to sensory stimulation (visual, auditory, touch, movement, olfactory, gustatory), then his body may go into an automatic nervous system response of “Fight, Flight, Fright” (most commonly known as fight or flight) when presented with sensation. His body may interpret a given sensation as “not okay”. This is usually considered a non-noxious stimulus; others would not perceive the stimulus as threatening. For instance, most people do not become upset from the stroke of a hair brush. However, if a child is sensitive to touch, this simple stimulus will be interpreted as threatening, and the nervous system will activate the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is something that occurs in everyone’s body. If you are in a situation that you interpret as threatening, your nervous system’s reaction is to fight or flee. Your heart rate increases, your breath rate quickens, you begin to sweat….you are ready for battle or you are ready to run.
Sensory Sensitivity and Behavior
When a child is a sensory avoider, he may act out prior to, or during, an activity in an attempt to avoid the activity. This may occur due to the anticipation of what he thinks will happen. His body may perceive it as threatening and activates the fight or flight response. He may act out during the task or become upset afterward because the demands were too overwhelming.
A child who is a sensory seeker, or is under responsive, is constantly in search of, or in need of, additional sensory experiences. He may appear to be aggressive, rough and/or out of control. He may be lacking good body awareness, be clumsy, or have “reckless” movements. This child may unintentionally (because of poor awareness) or intentionally (seeking more input) bump or crash into peers. Additionally, a child may require intense sensation to gain body awareness. He may not register touch or pressure or pain. This child may be too rough or seek rough play. This is his body’s way of gaining, what it perceives to be, the appropriate level of sensory information. As a result, this child may be labeled a “bully” by his peers.
Tactile System and Behavior
If a child is not processing tactile input efficiently, he will respond to peers or situations in ways that are considered inappropriate. This child may need to touch everything in his environment in order to register sensory information, which could certainly be seen as a behavioral problem. Light touch may be perceived as pain. Imagine a child who interprets touch as a negative thing….his body is processing a gentle touch or a bump from a peer as painful and/or threatening. His body will enter the “Fight, Flight, Fright” state and he might strike the peer (fight), run away from the situation (flight), or “shut down” (fright). If a child’s response is to hit a peer, he may be identified as an aggressive child, a bully, or a “trouble maker”. If he chooses to run away, he may be labeled as having behavior or attention problems. When a child shuts down, he may become quiet and withdrawn.
Auditory System and Behavior
The “Fight, Flight, Fright” response may be observed when a child is introduced to auditory stimulation that is considered offensive or threatening. This might be a sudden loud noise (door slamming, dog barking, fire alarm, etc.) or a continual noise that is interpreted as loud, painful, and/or irritating. This could be someone’s voice, music, television, etc. A child may fight to get out of the situation, he may run and hide, or he may shut down. He may cover his ears, scream to disguise the noxious sound, or become anxious. Additionally, if a child is under responsive to sounds, then he may not process verbal directions, and appear to be ignoring the speaker. This may be interpreted by adults as poor behavior.
Visual System and Behavior
If visual stimulation becomes too overwhelming, a child can become over-stimulated and he may resist an activity or an environment, which may be demonstrated by fighting, fleeing, or shutting down. Environments that may be visually over-stimulating to children include restaurants, stores, school lunchrooms, etc. Behaviors may become worse in these areas due to increased visual stimulation. The child may fidget and become distractible in an attempt to avoid the stimulation.
Vestibular System and Behavior
If a child’s vestibular system does not effectively process movement, then he may dislike having his head moved from the upright position or having his feet off the ground. Therefore, any loss of balance or any activity that requires his feet to leave the ground can elicit a fight, flight, fright response. This can lead to avoidance of playground equipment, gymnastics, or any physical play activities.
Olfactory System and Behavior
A child can have a similar response of fight or flight when introduced to olfactory input that is considered offensive or threatening. The limbic system is a part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation and the formation of memories. It also interprets smells. If a smell is tied to a negative experience, then the child may react in a negative manner when that smell is in the environment. This could be the smell of perfume, lotion, food, chemicals, etc.