The line between sensory and behavior often becomes blurred and can be one of the most confusing challenges faced by parents of kids with sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Not all negative behaviors equal “sensory meltdown” and not all kids with behavior challenges have SPD. So how do we tell the difference?

Here are some factors to consider when faced with challenging behaviors? If the answer to the following questions is “yes,” then the behaviors are likely NOT related to difficulties with sensory processing.

  • Does the behavior go away as soon as the need is met? i.e. when your child gets the toy they wanted, they immediately calm down?
  • Is your child is referencing those around them? i.e. do they look at you while they are doing the behavior and/or do they watch for your reaction?
  • Does your child respond to firm limits and/or consequences for the negative behavior? i.e. a toy gets removed because the child was throwing it and throwing of toys stops; Time outs for yelling decreases yelling behavior; fits at bedtime decrease when consistent bedtime, expectations, and bedtime routines are set and followed. A child having a sensory meltdown:

BUT…if you answer “yes” to the following scenarios, sensory processing is likely influencing your child’s behavior.  Sensory meltdowns often mean your child:

  • does not respond to typical and consistently implemented behavioral interventions such as limits, natural or imposed consequences, verbal reasoning, incentive-reward systems or positive social-peer influences.
  • does not change their behavior immediately but instead the behavior dissipates slowly or your child gradually calms/changes their behavior as triggers are removed and their nervous system slowly recovers from the heightened state of arousal
  • does not pay attention to those around them or modify their behavior based on another person’s immediate response. A child in a high state of arousal who is escalating based on sensory triggers, may still be aware of those around him/her and may attempt to shift their behavior but to little avail and they cease to visually reference those around him/her as they continue to escalate.

It is possible for behavior challenges and sensory meltdown to overlap because the two can co-exist and having SPD is not an excuse to get away with poor behavior.  All behavior has a root cause and even a child with sensory challenges is purpose driven to: 1) avoid negative stimuli, 2) to seek out positive stimuli they need for their body and brain, and 3) to control their environment. Controlling one’s environment includes controlling the people in it. Children with or without SPD may attempt to manipulate and control others in order to feel in control of themselves.  Children with SPD may present as more rigid and controlling because children with sensory differences may literally be at the whim of their environment and thus feel out of control much of the time.

This is where parents come in… as a source of positive and regulating input for their child. This concept is called co-regulation. Parents have the capacity as adults to modify their own behavior and emotional states to reflect back to the child the state we are wanting them to experience. Additionally, parents have the physical capacity and control to put into or take away from the environment, things that may be overstimulating or not stimulating enough for their child until their child is old enough or in control enough to manage their own environment and strategies (which may happen sooner than many parents think).

Additional resources re: the sensory vs. behavior dilemma may be found at:

Combining behavioral and sensory strategies is often the combined approach that is needed to help children with sensory differences learn to behave.

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