Understanding Your Child's Sensory Needs

Everyone has sensory needs; have you ever had trouble sitting still for something?  Just felt like running?  Got overwhelmed by a loud place or flashing lights?  Everyone has sensory preferences, from smells to noise to light.  Kids have sensory preferences too.  This is most recognized in children on Autism spectrum, but every kids has sensory needs and may, at some point, need help in getting those needs met.  Some are more sensitive to input than others, some are less sensitive.  Either way, when thinking about the behavior of a child, it is important to think about sensory triggers/problems that might be sustaining or causing the problem.

Here’s an example.  A child always has trouble getting off the bus.  When they get off the bus, they run away or hide or become aggressive to others.  Riding a car doesn’t trigger this.  But the bus always sets off the child.  What might be going on?  Maybe the noise on the bus or the sensation of movement on the bus is not comfortable.  Maybe being in a crowd is hard for this child and he or she is expected to get off the bus into a noisy crowd where there is some pushing.  Maybe the child doesn’t like strong sunlight and getting off the bus into the sun is hard (and maybe the car drop-off is covered). 

If adults assumed that the kid is intentionally being bad when he runs, hits or hides getting off the bus, they’d likely want to go the “rewards and punishment” route to addressing the behavior.  But if the behavior is due in part or mostly to sensory needs, well, then you can reward and punish to the end of time and it will not work. 

In this case, I’d test some of the theories about sensory needs.   Can the child get off the bus after everyone else has gone in the school?  If he or she does better going in later, then it may be a noise problem or crowding problem. If it is just a noise problem, could the child wear headphones?  Can the child carry an umbrella for sun?  Is the child getting motion sick on the bus and could they use SeaBands or could the school provide a different kind of bus?  With sensory needs, sometimes kids themselves aren’t aware of their needs.  Parents might notice patterns to behavior, as well as exceptions to those patterns.  Exceptions often provide the most information about possible solutions. 

With kids with high sensory needs, you want to work times to get those needs met during the day.  This could be as simple as active breaks at school (many teachers have gone to these already, calling them “brain breaks” and research supports their use in all kids).  Maybe your kids can get those needs met in the classroom with exercise bands around the legs of a chair or getting up and walking around the school a couple of times a day. 

Something as simple as wearing a hood in a noisy space can help as well; at ComicCon this year, the noisiest and most overwhelming event in my year, I was very grateful my costume had a hood I could wear.  It sounds strange, but it helped me! Headphones in the class can help kids who try to avoid noise as well. 

Kids don’t always have choices about places they go and things they do. And children’s ‘fun’ spaces tend to assume kids like NOISE! LIGHT!  CRAZINESS!  Some kids thrive on that.  Others do not.  Classrooms tend to favor kids who like it quiet and calm.  Classrooms don’t provide enough sensory input for kids who seek sensory input.  Parents have to help their child recognize and somewhat control sensory input.  The first step is for parents to consider their child’s sensory style and needs.  Does your child run to or away from noise?  Does your child calm down after exercise or ramp up?   Does your child struggle with certain kinds or lights or noise?  Is there a place your child does better in or struggles more in?  Thinking those issues through allow you to begin to understand your child’s sensory needs and make adjustments to your child’s day to help them do better in school, at home, and with peers.