WT 134: Understanding Sensory Based Behavior with Occupational Therapist Christy Bennett

by Karen Stubbs | Birds on a Wire | Wire Talk Podcast

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

Lucy the Lapdog

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KAREN: All right, now what IS sensory-based behavior for those of us who aren’t familiar with that term?

CHRISTY: Sensory based behaviors are ways we all interpret, process and react to what’s going on around us in our environment. So we ALL have sensory preferences and we behave in ways to get more of what we like and avoid sensory input we don’t like. It ties into our love language and everything. Most of us don’t think about our sensory preferences or the sensory needs of our kids until we start seeing behaviors that don’t quite jive with the situation, or aren’t explained by typical wants or needs. We all know our basic five senses and we, as adults, can pretty much adapt our world to avoid sights, smells, sounds, touch and tastes we don’t like or give ourselves more of what we do like. I just mentioned the five senses we all know about but there are actually eight senses that play into our everyday lives. It’s the ones most people don’t know about that have the biggest impact. You can read more about these systems on my website but to mention them now they are your proprioceptive sense or your body awareness sense, your vestibular sense which is your movement sense and interoceptive sense which is about your internal cues.

Question 1: How do I know if my child has sensory issues? Is there a particular age this comes up? What are some of the signs?

CHRISTY: This question doesn’t have a quick answer but I think I can best address this speaking through my experience as a mom. I first realized my daughter Audrey (she’s 11 now) had sensory issues when she went to touch the frosting on her first birthday cake and she gagged. I already knew she was slower to warm up to people and situations but this was the first time I clued in to her tendency to avoid situations with intense sensory input. Then along came my son and between a ton of ear infections and the quirky little behaviors he was showing, I knew that God had given me a child that was going to make me work! As far as a particular age to look for signs, I think they can come at any age. Having an impulsive toddler who can’t stay still is expected. Having a 4 year old who can’t stay still through a meal, can’t keep hands to themselves, throws a tantrum when the weather changes and they have to start wearing jeans or long sleeves…those are signs of a sensory processing problem.


Question 2: Any tips on best before and after school activities/ routine for a child that is sensory seeking? We do outside as much as possible but sometimes it rains. 

Christy’s Answer: This is a great time to talk about the two main categories of sensory needs. You have two extremes: sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. Your sensory seekers have a high threshold for input therefore they seek more and more of it to try and reach their threshold that helps them feel “just right”. An avoider on the flip side has a very low threshold. They may meet their threshold for sensory input before they’ve left the house and have to face what is to them noxious stimuli at school.  My guy is a sensory avoider through and through. My daughter is a bit of a mix, which most of us are, meaning she avoids some things but seeks other things. Audrey will not put on a back pack unless it’s waited and is really grossed out by light touch but loves to ride a roller coaster. I’ll assume your child is a seeker of all forms of sensory. At school he’ll be asked to sit still for way longer than his body can handle. Before and after school, I would give him lots of opportunity for movement input but not just any movement input, I would have your child do what are referred to as Heavy Work Activities. We’re talking about two of those deeper, lesser known systems here. Vestibular and proprioceptive. It’s combining movement with muscle load and input into your joints. Things like pushing, pulling, climbing, doing animal walks, carrying weighted objects around. Maybe a rainy afternoon is the perfect time for furniture arranging (kidding not kidding). Starting homework before your child has had his threshold met is just going to be a frustrating and impossible task. Sensory tools like Lucy the Lapdog give weighted, calming and grounding input to help regulate a child’s system so that they can sit and focus through those tasks that require increased attention. And you may need to get creative even with a tool like Lucy the Lapdog, have your child lie on his stomach (propped on elbows) with Lucy on their back, or stand at the table. I’ll put a list of Heavy Work Activities on my website. The bonus with these is that they are universally helpful; whether your child is seeking or avoiding, proprioceptive and deep touch input are regulating. They can bring your nervous system up or down depending on where they are.

Question 3: My son currently works with an OT once a week: How can I prepare my son for Kindergarten (one year from now) knowing he has sensory processing challenges? My worries are that he will have a teacher with lack of education and understanding of sensory processing. I want to set him up for success as well as establish open communication with the teacher so we can support each other and my child’s needs.

Christy: I’m glad your son is seeing an OT. It is very possible your son’s teacher won’t have an understanding of sensory processing so open communication will be key. Most schools have a form for parents to fill out where you can list your child’s strengths and weaknesses and what teacher characteristics would best match your child. If your child is primarily a sensory seeker, I would communicate that he will need increased opportunities for movement throughout the day and what I call a multi-sensory approach to learning. Since my son is a sensory avoider and very easily overstimulated, he needs a teacher with good classroom management and a quieter disposition. I’m so huge on open communication because a sensory seeker often comes across as impulsive or hyperactive while a sensory avoider may seem inattentive, anxious or disconnected. You can guess that our sensory seekers of the world capture the attention of teachers the fastest. It always breaks my heart seeing kids getting in trouble for doing what their bodies are telling them to do. Teachers have such a hard job of balancing large classes filled with little ones of all levels and behaviors. Your teacher will greatly appreciate any insight on to what is truly driving your child’s behaviors. And for your anxious sensory avoiders, your child needs you to advocate for him or her because they’re usually suffering silently.


Question 3a: My kindergartener was recently diagnosed with dyspraxia, among other sensory processing issues. His symptoms are mild enough that they were overlooked by his pediatrician and preschool teachers. My debate is whether or not to share his diagnosis with his new teacher? We’re worried that if we tell the teacher, he will carry this label at school. We don’t want special allowances for him; we know he will have to work harder than others in some areas, but we think that is necessary to make him strong and successful. However, I wonder if the information would be helpful to his teacher, and I don’t want to treat it like a shameful secret. Any suggestions?

Christy: You can guess my answer to this one! I personally would share the diagnosis with his teacher. With dyspraxia in particular, certain strategies will be needed for your child to best learn. When I’ve explained dyspraxia to teachers, usually a lightbulb goes off in their minds, and they have more patience and understanding of how to teach your child. Repetition and a multi-sensory approach will benefit all children but a child with motor planning issues will need even more of this. And time. Giving our kids enough time to practice skills like managing their own fasteners on clothes, getting their shoes on, etc etc is something we all struggle with in our fast paced lives. Increased time to respond may be the greatest gift your child with dyspraxia can get.

Question 4: My 4.5 year old boy seems to chew on everything, especially when he is idle. Is this normal?

Christy: First of all normal is such a subjective term. Especially with kids with sensory processing issues, I think of it more as is it a functional or dysfunctional behavior. For your little guy, chewing on things is what helps him feel “normal”. It’s what is helping him stay in the game so to speak. If we think about infants, sucking is the first and most calming reflex. And, we know that it’s expected for babies to mouth things as that’s how they’re exploring their world. Fast forward to adulthood-we all know a nail-biter, a pencil biter, ice cruncher, etc. I would consider those oral-seeking behaviors but they are helpful behaviors to that person’s nervous system. If your child is chewing through clothing, eating what they’re chewing on or more destructive extremes, I would say that is outside the realm of typical or normal and would address it. Another way to look at it is asking yourself if it is distracting him from what he needs to be doing. Telling your child to stop doing a sensory based behavior is not going to work. We have to get in the mindset of replacing that sensory need with what is okay for you and your family. They make a lot of cooler looking items now that can be used to replace it. I like what is called “chewelry”, you can google it.  Also, talking to an occupational therapist to get his overall sensory patterns identified would be a good idea. It’s usually not just one sensory system that is out of whack.


Question 5: My six-year-old has sensory processing and motor development issues; on top of this, he has a RED temperament. The combination can make him a bit challenging to parent. On the flip side, his brother is a typically developing, laid-back child – a green temperament through and through. How do I balance the two? More specifically, how do I give my little guy the attention he deserves when my oldest demands so much time and energy, while also making sure my oldest doesn’t feel like a “problem child” compared to his easy-going brother?

Christy: I get the challenge here! My daughter would emphasize with your youngest. Red temperament and a sensory processing issue is a hard combo but I can think of one word to keep in mind. Control. Your red child’s temperament likes to be the decision maker and your child’s sensory system is screaming for it.  Giving your child whatever control over the situation you can reasonably give him and also validation of your child’s sensory needs will help. Validation is huge for my son. These kids don’t know why they are feeling as they do and they need us mamas to validate their needs and discomforts and help them elicit some control over the situation.

Question 6: My son is going on 7 and has an off and on tick where he cocks his head back randomly, several times a day. It seems to be worse during the school year. He is a very healthy kid, but would love to know if there is something I should be doing to support him thru this?


Christy: I can relate to this and am trying to figure out how much to address this Hudson. He’s been doing similar things and also more this school year. I think it’s anxiety makes it worse. It looks very “ticky” but while he’s not aware of how much he’s doing it, I’ve asked him and he said he’s doing it to try and “reset to normal”.


Question 7: What are the best things to do with a vestibular kiddo?

Christy: Vestibular is the fancy word for movement. Our vestibular receptors are located in our inner ear so anytime you move your head, you are getting input into this system. Assuming your child is a seeker of movement and their threshold is very high, you’ll need to make sure they get plenty of opportunities to get this input. The playground is your best friend and I would encourage you to let your child to lead the activities, especially if they love spinning. Spinning is one think you need to be cautious about as it is very intense and the effects of it can last 8 hours! I let kids spin themselves so they are in control. Like we mentioned before, Heavy Work activities like climbing or combining movement with weighted objects are great. If you’re listening and saying, you haven’t met my kid, he is everywhere, then try inversion (upside down) as this is the strongest form of vestibular input. Again, it is best if your child controls this and make sure they can independently get out of what position they’re in.

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