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Does My Child Have Behavioral Issues or Sensory Challenges?

In today’s post, I’d like to discuss a painful situation I encountered a few weeks ago. I went to meet a few friends for breakfast, and when I arrived, a few of my friends were engaged in an emotional discussion about their children. One of them appeared to be visibly distressed. She was speaking to her good friend, saying, “That’s it. I can’t take it anymore. I need to take my child to a psychologist!”

Knowing that I was a neurodiversity advocate, she immediately turned to me and explained what was troubling her. She said her child was extremely intelligent but fanatic about order and cleanliness. He lacked flexibility and took things to an extreme. For example, he refused to use the bathroom at school or even at home if it was dirty.

Despite his high cognitive abilities, she was also frustrated that her child didn’t appear motivated or interested in excelling at school. Although his academic level surpassed the performance of his classmates, she believed he was performing below his actual abilities. He wasn’t making the emotional effort to progress and reach his potential. He also complained when his teacher gave him supplementary enrichment activities because he preferred to be “like everyone else.”

My friend cares for her child greatly and was frustrated that she could not help him become more flexible or motivate him to make more effort to progress and achieve. She was clearly worried about her child’s future and wanted him to change so that he would be able to reach his potential and live a satisfying, comfortable life.

After listening to the things that were bothering her, and before I go any further, I’d like to clarify that I am not against taking children to a psychologist if there is a possibility that it could benefit them. That being said, my instincts told me that, in this instance, it was worth digging a bit deeper to attempt to assess if some of her child’s behaviors were due to sensory dysregulation rather than him simply “being difficult” or “lacking motivation.”

Sensory dysregulation is often misinterpreted as “bad behavior.” It can lead to a lack of flexibility, negativity, refusal to participate in certain activities, fatigue, frustration, anger, fearfulness, psychological stress or difficulties, and symptoms resembling ADHD, dyslexia, and more.

In my experience, I have discovered that it is preferable to try to assess for and address sensory challenges before seeking other forms of assistance. There are three underlying reasons for this: if the senses are dysregulated, the treatments will be less or ineffective, the child might be misdiagnosed, and the psychological treatment will not solve the sensory issues.

In contrast, there are many instances where if the sensory issues are addressed, the child will achieve an overall sense of well-being, and the underlying behavioral and psychological challenges will improve. There will be instances when the child needs sensory and psychological support. Still, I believe it is critical to initially try to assess and regulate the sensory system to facilitate the success of supplementary psychological or educational interventions.

Now, let’s get back to my friend. Once she finished her monologue, I asked a few initial questions:

  • Do you feel your child experiences sensory dysregulation in any of his senses (visual, auditory, vestibular, olfactory (sensitivity to smells), gustatory, tactile?
  • Does your child have any problems reading? If he reads fluently, does he tire quickly when he reads (does he put down the book or fall asleep after a short time reading? Does he complain about the lights irritating him or headaches?
  • Does he hear you correctly? Do background noises distract him, or do loud noises irritate him?
  • Is he “clumsy”? Does he enjoy sports?
  • How does he fare socially?

Her answers indicated that it was worth assessing her son’s sensory regulation. He was extremely sensitive to smells (aversive odors made him nauseous, which explains his refusal to use public toilets), refused to participate in activities involving vestibular instability (such as agreeing to be lifted on his father’s shoulders), was clumsy, read well but tired quickly, and more.

A dysregulated sensory system interferes with every aspect of daily living. It can also lead to what is often termed a “meltdown,” or a nervous/sensory system overload that triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. This type of sensory overload might look like a “tantrum” or defiant behavior in young children.

These types of behaviors are not due to the child having behavioral problems. They are simply a reaction to sensory overstimulation, and therefore, when they occur, the child needs to be provided with a calming sensory environment to enable their system to regulate. Punishment in these situations will lead to additional stress and trauma. It is, therefore, critical to learn how to assess whether the child’s behaviors are due to sensory issues or behavioral issues.

If you’d like to understand sensory challenges better and learn about possible solutions, I invite you to check out my book “Moving Forward: Reflections on Autism, Neurodiversity, Brain Surgery, and Faith,” available on Amazon and Ingram Spark. You can also read my articles and listen to podcasts on my blog. I believe you will find my presentation at CASY (Cultural Autism Studies at Yale) particularly insightful.

In addition, feel free to reach out to me with any questions or to book a presentation or lecture at jackiedrybooks@gmail.com. 

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Jacki Edry

Jacki Edry

Jacki Edry is a graduate of Hampshire College and has an extensive background in education, writing, and marketing. She has been exploring the world of autism and neurodiversity for over thirty-five years. 

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MOVING FORWARD

Moving Forward  is a journey between the worlds of autism, neurodiversity, brain surgery recovery, and faith. It provides a rare glimpse into how sensory and neurological processing affect functioning and thought, through the eyes of a professional, parent, and woman who has experienced them firsthand.

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