• Is it Sensory Processing Disorder or Behavior Issue?


    Does your child flail in his seat, lean on his arms or lie down on the desk during schoolwork and tune out? Does she startle at every sound, squirm when someone touches or brushes against her, complain of itchy hair or clothes’ tags and meltdown? Either of these behaviors result in inability to pay attention to the task at hand. But is it really a behavioral problem? Look at the list below and see if any of these apply to you:


    • I trip or bump into things.
    • I am unsure of footing when walking on the stairs.
    • I get overwhelmed in large stores.
    • I avoid or wear gloves during activities that will make my hands messy.
    • I avoid standing in lines and often feel that people get too close to me.
    • I enjoy touching people (patting, holding their hand) when I talk to them.
    • I work on two or more tasks at a time.
    • I whistle, hum, or sing when I work.
    • It takes me more time than other people to wake up in the morning.


    Are you surprised by any of these? The first time I completed my “Sensory Profile” (sensory assessment,) I felt like reading a horoscope filled with uncanny insights into my person. I felt both relieved and incredulous that those sensations were “a thing” and that people who chew with their mouth open, blare the music, or gag at the smell of canned tuna have a valid reason to be annoying.

    We all have preferences but, generally, we manage to “deal” with unpleasantries through learned coping mechanisms or just sheer will. Furthermore, there are varying degrees of sensory processing issues. They may range from slight preferences to extremely strong responses. An extremely strong response to sensory stimuli is attributed to brain’s inability to “tone down” or increase (modulate) the sensory signals resulting in an inadequate response: a meltdown or a complete absence of a response. The inability to modulate sensory information is called Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.

    Now, if you can remember  a situation where you had an extremely strong sensory response, try to imagine what it is like for a child who does not know what is going on and does not care to be polite about it.

    People with sensory processing issues can be over-responsive or under-responsive to sensory stimuli. Therapists use questionnaires or assessments to figure out a person’s “sensory profile.” When we know what “sets her off” or what he needs to “wake up,” we can help in a few ways. First, we can adjust the environment: light, noise levels, temperature, clothing, etc. Second, we can prescribe a “sensory diet,” which, typically, does not involve food. A sensory diet is a custom built list of activities and modifications to “tone” one’s nervous system and to establish adaptive responses, e.g. a child who is hyperactive needs movement and stimulation that includes heavy work like pushing a shopping cart, bear walking, jumping on a trampoline, etc.

    So, how do you know if it is a behavioral or a sensory issue? Well, it can be both. But, generally, “sensory” kids respond when their sensory problem is fixed. My seven year old son used to meltdown every morning because his shoes felt too loose. I thought that he just wanted to mess around instead of going to school, so I sat him down and pulled his shoelaces until my fingers turned white, looked up at him, and he nodded: “Yeah, that’s good, thanks.”