From purposely crashing into walls to chewing holes through shirts to burrowing into couch cushions, sensory kiddos can display some strange or even problematic behaviors. Children with sensory issues have difficulty processing information from the senses, which can overwhelm them and cause atypical behaviors.
Some children are sensory seekers, meaning they underreact to sensory input and need more to function. Other children are sensory avoiders, meaning they overreact to sensory input and become overwhelmed. It is also possible for a child to show a combination of these reactions. We'll tackle some common issues, what they mean, and how you can help.
Crashing Into Walls
Did you know there are actually more than five senses? We also have other internal senses, one of those being “proprioception”. This big word simply means body awareness. We naturally have an instinct of how close we are to an object or the amount of strength it takes to do a task. Those with proproceptive issues can go two ways. Children who are hyposensitive crave input. They love jumping, bumping, and crashing. They may ask for big bear hugs or squeezes. Those that are hypersensitive may accidently bump into objects. They may also apply too much pressure when doing tasks, like ripping the paper when erasing or slamming doors when closing them.
How do I help?
If your child is purposely running into walls (or people, furniture, or crashing to the floor), he or she may be seeking this sort of input. You may consider making them a “crash pad”. Use a duvet cover that zips and fill it with soft items such as extra blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals. Place it in a safe place and encourage your child to crash into the pad when he is exhibiting this behavior. Another great option is a Body Sock. These stretchy, pillowcase-like tools provide the deep pressure input they are craving and as an added bonus, they're great fun! Another way to tackle this behavior is providing heavy work for them to do. Have them push furniture, move heavy objects, or fill a wagon with books and have them pull it around. The heavy work will give them the input they're seeking, allowing them to move on and concentrate on other tasks.
Spinning in Circles
Another internal sense is our vestibular system. This refers to our sense of balance and ability to know if our body is still or moving, fast or slow, and what direction we're moving in. Again, children can be over or under sensitive (or both!) to vestibular input. Constant spinning or movement can be a sign of vestibular issues. Other signs are being uncoordinated or unaware of danger, such as climbing too high at the playground.
How do I help?
If you child seems to be constantly spinning or moving, there are several fun ways to provide the input they're looking for. Swinging, jumping on a trampoline, rolling down a hill, or hanging upside down are all great activities to encourage your child. If your child is having trouble concentrating on a task or schoolwork, try a quick break to swing for ten or so minutes, then revisit the task. If you have a sensory room in your home, consider adding one of our Pod Swings!
Is your child chewing on EVERYTHING? Ruined pencils, wet t-shirt collars, and even biting themselves or others are all problematic chewing behaviors. Chewing itself is not necessarily a problem; in fact it can be good for sensory children. Chewing is a way to self-regulate feelings. Your child may be seeking oral input or channeling stress or anxiety. Chewing can be calming and even help them process other sensory input.
How do I help?
Keep in mind, for most children, chewing is not a want, it's a NEED. Their body is telling them they need to chew, and they will find anything to satisfy that need. Chewing as a tool is fine, as long as they're chewing on appropriate objects. There are several ways to help your chewer. Provide chewing gum in appropriate situations. Place chewable pencil toppers on pencils. Offer crunchy foods like carrots and pretzels. Chewelry is also a great option! There are many fun necklaces and bracelets available in a variety of shapes and colors. For children that chew on shirt collars, our “Shirt Saver” line of products are made directly from t-shirts to give that specific input they're looking for.
Burrowing into Couch Cushions
Does your child try to sink as far as possible into furniture or even remove couch cushions and lie down under them? This behavior may seem confusing but your child is seeking that deep pressure we talked about before. Children that exhibit this behavior may also like big hugs or squeezing into tight places for comfort, like hiding in closets or under the bed.
How do I help?
There are a few ways to provide the input your child is looking for. Have your child lie flat on the floor on their stomach or back. Roll a large vinyl ball (such as a yoga or exercise ball) over their body, applying as much pressure as is comfortable. You may even use a bit of your body weight on the ball as well if your child tolerates it. Massage is also great for children with this seeking behavior. Gently rub and squeeze your child's arms, legs, hand, feet, and back. This is especially helpful just before bedtime. Another helpful product is our Pressure Pod. The pod can be inflated to desired fullness, providing the same pressure (without messing up your couch!)
Using Multiple Blankets
Does your child insist on using a blanket even when it's too hot? Or does she pile several blankets on top of herself? This behavior goes back to the deep pressure issue we've already discussed. Those heavy blankets provide a sense of comfort and can even help with sleeping. The weighted pressure releases chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, easing anxiety and helping the brain and body relax.
How do I help?
The perfect answer to this is Weighted Blankets! Weighted blankets provide the perfect amount of pressure without the added bulk (and heat) of many blankets. We offer several types of blankets, including Breeze Blankets that are great for warmer weather. Take our short assessment to see if a weighted blanket is right for your child. Another option is a Compression Sheet. The sheets are made of the same stretchy fabric as our Body Socks and provide the same deep pressure.
Pulling Away from Touch
Tactile defensiveness is exteme sensitivity to touch. Children with this often fear being touched or avoid it completely. Clothing can also be uncomfortable against their skin. If your child shows these behaviors, you may also notice that they have difficulty transitioning between activities and may see lethargic.
How do I help?
Brushing therapy has been shown to help with tactile defensiveness. The Wilbarger Protocol is a therapy system in which skin is brushed with a soft brush several times throughout the day. Use a Sensory Brush to gently but firmly brush arms and legs. Do not brush their face, chest, or stomach. Parents report a decrease in defensiveness when using this technique as well as improved focus and attention span.
Screaming during Haircuts and Nail Clipping
Haircuts and nail clipping can be torturous for many sensory children and their parents. Screaming, crying, and claims that the activities hurt are common. And in fact, they probably do hurt to your sensory child. The touch, vibrations, sounds, and sensations associated with haircuts and nail clipping can be excruciating to sensory sensitive children. Most children with Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism struggle with these necessary tasks, and they're often the source of meltdowns.
How do I help?
First: Haircuts. If possible, learn to cut your child's hair yourself at home. Use distractions such as screentime or treats like suckers. Only cut a bit each time and spread the cut over several sessions and several days. If you must take them to a barber, discuss it with the barber ahead of time. Ask that lights be turned down, request an early or late appointment so there are less people, and ask that they not use buzzers if possible. Only cut as much as your child is able to handle and plan to go back several times to finish a full cut.
Second: Nail Clipping. Try decreasing the tactile defensiveness before clipping. Use a Hand Massager on their hands, especially fingertips. The soft vibrations will help calm the nerve endings and almost “numb” the fingertips. Use baby clippers or other specialty nail clippers instead of the regular ones you use on yourself. Finally, cut fingernails and toenails while your child is sleeping if possible.
Perhaps the most frustrating sensory behavior, meltdowns are an almost inevitable part of every sensory child's life. Most parents have experienced meltdowns at some point. No matter how much effort you put into helping your child navigate the day, sometimes they become too overwhelmed and melt down. Melt downs can include screaming, crying, running away, throwing objects, and even self-harm. Children in the midst of a meltdown have lost control and are unable to stop. They often are not capable of communicating either. It's important to keep your child safe and help them get through their meltdown. Keep in mind that behaviors are a form of communication for children, not a reflection of their character or your parenting.
How do I help?
If you can identify what made your child meltdown, remove that trigger. Sometimes it is not one thing though. In that case, don't try to fix things. Just be near and available. Your presence is reassuring. If your child is unable to communicate, be sure they are in a safe place and wait for the storm to pass. Offer comfort items if they will let you safely near them. Weighted Blankets can be draped across shoulders or on their lap if possible. Offer toys or tools such as a Calm Kit. When your child is done, talk with them about what happened, how they were feeling, and what could have been done differently. Remember to keep yourself in check during the meltdown as well. The screaming and other actions can cause your anxiety to rise. You will not be able to help calm your child if you are worked up as well. If your child is safe, you may wish to leave to area for a bit to calm yourself down.
Sensory issues can come to the surface in many confusing ways, both for you and your child. Knowing the why behind the behaviors will help you help them. Some behaviors are not a problem as long as your child and those around them are safe. If you are comfortable with a behavior, allow your child to do the activity. If a behavior is problematic, find the core need they are trying to fill and help them find a constructive or appropriate way to fill the need.