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Sensory Behaviors Explained

Sep 15th, 2016 | by Bryan LaScala
Bryan LaScala

Bryan LaScala

September 15th, 2016

Slow learning and poor behavior can sometimes be explained by inadequate sensory integration (SI) within the child’s brain. For most kids, appropriate integration of the senses happens naturally through ordinary everyday experiences. Though no one knows what exactly causes sensory processing disorders, with an understanding of SI you may see a new way of looking at some of your child’s behaviors and realize that SI dysfunction can occur with the finest of parenting and upbringing.

*Remember that not all signs and symptoms are seen in any one child, and some are present in children who do not have SI dysfunction.

1. My child is afraid to go down the slide at the park. I thought all kids liked that!

If your child also has a fear of swinging, avoids escalators and elevators and becomes fearful with any change in head position, such as when being tilted backwards or upside-down during roughhousing, then he or she may be gravitationally insecure. Our relationship to gravity is our most important sense of security, and is linked to our vestibular system. These particular observable behaviors are manifestations of a hyperresponsive vestibular system, which means your child’s gravity receptors are extra sensitive. A child with gravitational insecurity processes the pull of gravity as threatening, so everyday movement experiences, such as stepping down from a curb or getting into and out of a car can be scary. Your child becomes very anxious with these activities because he or she perceives small movements to be larger than they actually are. It is important to respect to your child’s reactions in various situations, and not treat them as an emotional or behavioral problem, as this will likely just make things worse. See tips from #2 about what you can do to foster a healthy vestibular system, in general, and see below for ways to help your child who displays gravitational insecurity.

Tips for home:Try a swing that allows your child’s feet to touch the ground, or hold him or her in your lap on a swing so they feel more secure during motion. Try distracting them with play and imagination during challenging activities. Sometimes adding weight, like a weighted backpack, helps a child feel more secure. Allow increased time for new ‘scary’ activities, and help your child gradually engage activities he/she sees as threatening.

2. Why is my child so clumsy? He/she is always falling down and doesn’t seem to care or try to catch himself.

We all know that kids fall down. Bumps, bruises, and scratches are part of childhood as kids explore their environment, trying new things and learning new skills along the way. However, clumsiness may be a one of the many possible signs of an underreactive vestibular system. Some other signs include low tone, poor posture (slouching), and difficulty using two hands at once for activities such as riding a bike, using scissors, or tying their shoes. You may have also noticed that it seems like your kid can spin and spin without feeling dizzy. The vestibular system is thought to be the primary organizer of sensory information. With a system that acts as it should, the constant pull of gravity generates a constant sensory flow in which all other sensory inputs are superimposed upon. This system is in charge of reacting to every change in head position, and is interdependent on other sensory systems to give us an idea of where our body is in relation to space. While problems with vestibular processing can be very subtle, they can have a large negative impact on learning. Your child might be very smart, yet still has difficulty with schoolwork. The reason your child experiences difficulties with writing or other academic learning is because higher-level brain functions rely on the proper processing from movement and gravity. Luckily, there are activities you can do at home to facilitate a vestibular system that develops and functions appropriately. To help your child master the basics, start with the sensorimotor abilities listed below!

Tips for home:Encourage movement experiences, ideally child-propelled ones such as swinging, sliding, and jumping. Try having your child do some activities like reading or playing a game while lying on stomach propped up on elbows. Encourage balance activities like skating and bike riding, and include “bilateral” activities such as jumping rope, playing a musical instrument, swimming, sewing etc.

3. My child overreacts when touched. Why does even the lightest touch make him/her scream?

Your child may be experiencing a decreased ability to modulate sensations coming in from the environment. Tactile sensations come in as sensations derived from stimulation to the skin. For some kids, an unexpected light touch can elicit a flight-or-flight reaction. When this happens, we call it tactile defensiveness. While most kids would not consider, for example, the tag of their shirt to be irritating or painful, this touch can actually be perceived as a very real threat to your child’s nervous system. Other things you may have observed in your child is an avoidance of going barefoot, getting their hands or hair washed, and shrugging off hugs and kisses. He or she may even be having trouble playing with other children due to their overly sensitive tactile system.  Luckily, there are simple things you can do at home to help your child process incoming tactile sensations more appropriately. Interestingly, deep pressure is the type of enhanced tactile sensation most commonly recommended for decreasing tactile defensiveness. So for example, if your child hates having his hair cut or washed, try giving a deep pressure scalp massage beforehand. This type of pressure touch is less threatening than a light touch and should have a modulating effect that will last through cutting or washing.  The most important thing you can do is acknowledge that your child’s problem is real and not just ‘poor behavior.’

Tips for home:Digging for objects buried in a bin filled with dried beans, exploring with different textures such as shaving cream or finger paint, ‘sandwich’ your child between cushions, ‘heavy work’ activities such as carrying grocery or laundry bags and push/pull games. Avoid irritating fabrics and light ‘ticklish’ touch until problem is alleviated.

4. Why does my child always ignore me? I think it’s on purpose!

While it’s very possible that your child may have ‘selective hearing’ at times, it’s also possible that some of this behavior you’re seeing is due to problems with auditory processing. This often manifests as problems following directions, confusion in noisy places, sensitivity to loud sounds, a short-attention span, and a delay in responding when spoken to. You may have noticed that your child ‘tunes out’ during group or social activities and easily becomes overwhelmed or distracted by laughter, crowds, or cheers.

It has been found that the auditory system and vestibular system are closely linked, thus many children with speech and language problems often show signs of inefficient vestibular processing. The best way to help your child with auditory processing difficulties is to build the sensorimotor foundations needed so this process to develop optimally. By fostering your child’s lower level processes so they can become more efficient, you will aid the development of higher-level cognitive functions, like speech and language. Follow tips from #2 to foster a well modulated vestibular system, and see below for tips help your child better process auditory information.

Tips for home:Make sure you look right at your child when speaking to him or her, ask them to repeat back to you what was just said, reduce background and other competing noise, try to ‘trick’ your child with purposeful inconsistencies in your speech to hone their active listening skills (for ex. did you just see that pink dog?)

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