By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 65


Learn how to look at behavior through an OT lens and start decoding your child’s behavior into sensory and non sensory triggers, so you can start supporting them more effectively. Check out the Sensory IS Behavior mini course.

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Re-Air: Is it Sensory or Is it Behavior?
Speaker 1 (00:00): So for example, my four-year-old keeps hitting his baby sister every time he passes by her. Or my six-year-old has huge meltdowns every day before school, or my three-year-old keeps running away in class in his preschool class. After I let the parents explain more of the scenario or the challenge that...

Speaker 1 (00:00):

So for example, my four-year-old keeps hitting his baby sister every time he passes by her. Or my six-year-old has huge meltdowns every day before school, or my three-year-old keeps running away in class in his preschool class. After I let the parents explain more of the scenario or the challenge that they’re working through, then they usually ask some form of, well, is this sensory or is it behavior? And when I hear that in my head, I’m automatically translating it to what they’re really asking, which is my child hitting or screaming or melting down, or whatever the behavior is. Is my child hitting due to a sensory trigger or are they doing it? Welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast for parents where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and Mom to Liliana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new OT mom, bestie. I know my stuff, but I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder.

Speaker 2 (01:12):

Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s start the podcast.

Speaker 1 (01:21):

Hey everyone, welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast. If you’re new here, welcome, happy to have you come on in. And if you’ve been listening for a while, thank you. Thanks for coming back and thanks for listening. Alright, so into the episode. Today is a big one. It is really the backbone, the meat of my entire platform and brand and messaging and is a big part of what I do and how I talk about sensory. If I were running for president, this would be my campaign tagline, and that is sensory is behavior. And someone pointed out to me recently that that sentence technically isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s in the context like responding to the debate that is it sensory or is it behavior? And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m going to give you some examples. So when I have my one-on-one coaching calls with parents, they will usually share a certain scenario or a behavior that keeps coming up with their child, and it’s usually one that involves some form of aggression or crying or meltdowns.
(02:47)So for example, my four-year-old keeps hitting his baby sister every time he passes by her. Or my six-year-old has huge meltdowns every day before school, or my three-year-old keeps running away in his preschool class. After I let the parents explain more of the scenario or the challenge that they’re working through, then they usually ask some form of, well, is this sensory or is it behavior? And when I hear that in my head, I’m automatically translating it to what they’re really asking, which is my child hitting or screaming or melting down, or whatever the behavior is. Is my child hitting due to a sensory trigger or are they doing it quote on purpose? And that quote on purpose part is usually what parents are inferring as the behavior. That’s what they’re talking about the behavior. Well, we’re going to break that down. So if you look in the dictionary, the definition of behavior is the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus, the way in which a person acts in response to a situation or stimulus.
(04:10)So if the situation or the stimulus happened to be Christmas music playing while you’re decorating the Christmas tree, then your three-year-old response to this by being hyperactive and hitting their sibling, there is a chance that the hitting was caused by a sensory trigger, which is the Christmas music or even the Christmas lights. But hitting is still considered a behavior even if it was triggered by a sensory input. So in that sense, the behavior is communicating that the child is dysregulated from too much competing auditory or even visual input from the bright lights, all of it. Now, maybe that same three-year-old the next day also hits their sibling again, and this time while they’re playing Legos, so they’re playing Legos. And then maybe the sibling takes a piece that the three-year-old needed or wanted. Then the three-year-old, I should say at this time, is otherwise regulated at this time of day.
(05:18)There’s like no music going on. They’re just doing their regular playtime. So you figure out that they’re hitting because they’re feeling upset and angry that their sibling took their toy. The behavior is still hitting. The reason why they hit is because there is potentially a skill that they’re lacking and maybe the skill is language that they need to communicate. That anger or the skill of impulse control or the skill of emotional regulation, they’re lacking some sort of skill to put into place instead of hitting it. But hitting is the easiest way that they know at that time, and they’re doing the best that they can at that time. So hitting is a behavior, but sometimes it can be driven by a sensory trigger, and other times it can be an indication of a skills gap.
(06:09)And I want to be clear that again, this example was in the same child. So the same child can hit from a sensory trigger and the same child can hit from some other trigger. It doesn’t mean that every time they hit, it’s a sensory trigger. You really do have to look with your lenses at the environment and the context and everything else that’s going around it. So just to really drive the point home and really make it clear, I want to share with you a few different examples, and they’re going to be real examples of clients that I’ve worked with in the past and even my own daughter and how their behavior was directly tied to a sensory trigger. So one time I was working with a four year old boy in the clinic and he was tactile defensive, which is what we call if you’re sensory sensitive to touch input.
(07:00)And he was extremely sensitive to imposed touch, which is basically when anything that touched him wasn’t in his control. So this included things like hugs or being tapped on the shoulder, all of those things. So I was helping him from one room to the other, and as he was walking in front of me, I kind of placed my hand on the back of his shoulder or just on his back to kind of not push him, but just guide him out of the room. And he immediately turned around and scratched me. We were both actually pretty startled, but he looked shocked. His pupils were dilated, and he was like, oh, what did I do? He looked like he didn’t even know what came over him. So for this same client, I went to his school to observe him because he was having a lot of challenges in social situations with peers.
(07:55)And his mom and I were trying to figure this out, and I said, you know what? I need to get a closer look to see what’s happening. Because his teacher couldn’t really pinpoint a certain trigger or what was going on. She wasn’t really seeing anything that was consistent enough. So I said, let me take a look. So I went there to his classroom and I observed for an hour, and I saw a super quick interaction that could have easily been misinterpreted by the teachers. So he was sitting in a group of peers and they were kind of in a circle playing with I don’t remember if it was marbles or rolling balls or cars, something that could roll and easily get away from you, something that rolled. And so let’s just call it a car. And someone’s car rolled under his legs. He was sitting crisscross applesauce, and that pier just went to reach out and grab it from underneath his leg.
(08:49)So their hand grazed under his leg, and he immediately then hit and swatted at that child. And then that child cried. And then the teacher came over and was like, what happened? I, I didn’t jump in. I wanted to see what the child would say. And the child was like, well, he hit me. I was just trying to grab my car and he hit me. So if I hadn’t seen that whole thing unfold and understand my client’s sensory triggers, that could have easily been labeled as this client not knowing how to share or having a really hard time with anger and emotions. And that really was not the case. So I was then able to help translate what happened for the teacher and mom. But that was just a really good example of how quickly that one of those behaviors could happen. And of course the other children don’t understand why it happened. My client himself barely understood, but it was a true fight or flight response. It was actually a fight response. It was in response to the trigger of being touched unexpectedly and out of his control. But it was a behavior he hit. He swatted that kid’s hand away. And that was a behavior, and it was driven by a sensory trigger.
(10:12)So another example I have is one that you can actually watch on my Instagram. You could see this unfold. It’s a very quick video under a minute, but you head to the I G T V tab. I think now it’s indicated by a play symbol. So it’s not the reels tab, it’s the one with a play symbol, and it’s the I G T V videos. And scroll down to where you see her carving a pumpkin and she’s wearing a dark blue shirt. There’s one next to it where she’s carving a pumpkin, but she’s wearing a green or teal shirt watch where she’s in the dark blue shirt. So Liliana is tactile, defensive and hates getting her hands sticky or messy, and we’ve gone through waves of it and it’s actually getting worse again recently. But anyway, this was our second time pumpkin carving. And as you know, pumpkin guts are not the easiest to touch.
(11:04)I also don’t love touching them myself. But before the video actually starts recording, she was using one of those long-handled black spoons to mix a bowl of pumpkin guts. I was carving the pumpkin and putting all the guts in a bowl, and I was just getting her to play and interact with it using a really long black spoon. It’s one of those black slotted spoons that you use for making a pasta sauce. So that’s what she was using before the video starts. Then the video starts recording, and it’s when I ask her to switch spoons with me. So I was using just a regular tablespoon not tablespoon like measuring spoon, but a regular silver spoon. It was regular sized and I was using that and I wanted her to switch with me. And the reason why I was trying to switch with her is I was trying to get her closer to touching the pumpkin slime by giving her a shorter spoon.
(11:58)So you can visually see at this moment when I ask her to switch, there’s dysregulation in her eyes. Her pupils look dilated. She looks like she’s almost zoning out, but there’s something happening. You could see it in her face and even her body language, she’s like messing with her hair. It’s almost like she’s getting hot and getting irritated. So she’s already uncomfortable. But I ask her to switch and then she refuses switching in a very aggressive way. She’s like, no, I want the black spoon. And then she grabs the spoon, just completely grabs it out of my hand. Now, if I didn’t understand her sensory cup and how her regulation works, I might have thought of that as like, oh, that was so rude. Or if someone saw that, they might have felt inclined to be like, Hey, you should ask, tell her to ask nicely.
(12:45)But I knew that that wasn’t her voluntarily acting that way. Her behavior, which was grabbing the spoon angrily, was driven by a sensory trigger. And if you think about it, she hadn’t even come into contact with that sensory trigger yet. She hadn’t even touched the pumpkin guts, is what I keep calling it. She hadn’t even touched the pumpkin guts, but it was in anticipation of it. I was changing something up and she knew that it was going to be different. She had already gotten used to using the black long spoon and I wanted to switch that up. And she hadn’t even touched anything. So she hadn’t done the touch part of it yet. But it was just by being surrounded by the challenge of it and the anticipation of it and me changing it up that already made her dysregulated. But that’s still considered a sensory trigger. And you see this a lot in kids with sensory sensitivities. They start to have increased behaviors surrounding the sensory trigger, even if it’s not actually in front of them yet. So maybe on the way to a baseball game or on the way to the doctor’s office or on the way to walking to the bathroom, they’re already dysregulated just from the anticipation of the sensory trigger or the sensory experience.
(14:07)I have a couple more examples for you. I had another four-year-old that was having an exceptionally hard time focusing, participating and just following the instructions in her pre-K class. So when her parents and I kept getting these reports from school, we were kind of stumped. Cause I had been working with her for a while, but she wasn’t in school yet for the first part that I was working with her. But she never really jumped out to either of us parents or myself as having executive functioning challenges, which are those skills related to attention and focus. We didn’t see this at home. We didn’t see, really see this in the clinic, nothing that jumped out, not as much as what the teacher was reporting at school. Her teacher was like, she keeps getting out of her chair. She’s not following through with the instructions. She’s always last to do X, Y, and Z.
(14:59)Her primary reason for coming to the clinic was for clothing sensitivities. She was very limited in what she could wear at home and in the community. But this challenge, again, that I said, came up at school after I was already working with her for three months. So long story short, we figured out that the school uniform that she had to wear, which was something that we were working on in the clinic, it was so uncomfortable for her in the classroom that it was just a constant sensory trigger for her all day long. So just to put that in your frame of reference. If your sensory trigger is like you don’t like the sound of a toilet flushing, imagine that sound of toilet flushing all day long. It never stops. That’s how clothing sensitivities can be to a child who’s sensory sensitive. It’s just on your skin all day long.
(15:53)And when your brain is focused on processing or protecting you from a sensory trigger, which in neurotypical people, the brain does this automatically, but when your brain spends energy on doing that during the school day, it can be extremely distracting and it makes it hard for you to focus and pay attention to the teacher. So once we worked on more regulation strategies at home and in the clinic, and parents also asked for the school for clothing accommodations, we noticed a huge improvement. So she asked the school if her daughter could wear similar colored clothing that was not part of the uniform, just at least for the first few months while she got used to it while we worked on it in the clinic, because it was directly impacting her ability to focus in the classroom. And once they did that, I mean not once they did that, it was a step in the right direction and it was something that definitely helped.
(16:52)Okay, so I’m going to share one more example, and this is one I like to share because it shows you how complex a sensory trigger can be. It’s not always clear as the toilet flushes, then your child melts down. So it’s triggered by the toilet flushing. Sometimes the sensory trigger can be an accumulation of sensory input throughout the day or even days before. And this includes routine changes or changes in schedules because when you change those things, then it offers new or unexpected sensory inputs that can also be really hard for sensory sensitive kits. So my favorite example is that of the afterschool meltdown. So on my daughter’s first week of school after we were locked on lockdown for over a year, I picked her up from school and handed her water bottle that I brought from home. When I buckled her in the car seat, she didn’t like the water bottle that I chose.
(17:49)It happened to be the wrong one then. So she had her little meltdown. It wasn’t even a meltdown at the point, it was kind of just an emotional outburst. She got really upset that I chose the wrong one, but I finally got her in the car seat. Once she got over that, then she was mad. I was already driving by the way. Then she was mad that the water wasn’t filled up to the right line in the water bottle. It wasn’t right to the precise line. So she was screaming cause I was driving. I couldn’t do anything about it, and she threw it on the ground. Then the meltdown continued all throughout the car ride home. And then even once we got home that day, and then when I was looking through pictures on her school app where her teachers upload them, upload pictures, I saw finger painting.
(18:32)I saw her sitting at the edge of the lunch table by herself wearing her headphones, and I saw pictures of her sitting next to her classmates during circle time while they were clapping at the end of a book. So all of this told me, wow, that was a very busy day. It was full of sound sights, feelings, smells, all of the things that really truly fill her sensory cup. And she did have a great day at school. She didn’t have any behaviors or meltdowns. In fact, her teachers were like, she’s doing great. But the last drop in her sensory cup was just seeing a water bottle that she didn’t quite want, and that just set her over the edge. So the behavior was screaming and throwing the bottle. That was a behavior, but it was driven by being overloaded from sensory input from the day that she had at school.
(19:21)So sensory is behavior and behavior is communication. Sometimes our kids are communicating that they’re dysregulated and we need to help them find more moments of regulation. So if you found this episode helpful and you want to keep thinking this way and learning how to decode behaviors and understand the various sensory triggers that they could be related to, then check out my sensory is behavior course for parents and educators. It is a quick and easy course that will translate your child’s behaviors into what they might be really communicating so that you can actually support them in the ways that they need you to. So you can head down below to find the link or you can just type in your browser, the ot to grab the course. Alright, that’s it for now. I’ll see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review, which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT Butterfly. See you next time.




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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