Sensory Responses Versus Behavior Challenges

Aug 26, 2020 | Caregiver Resources Featured, Resources for Adults, Resources for Infants, Toddlers & Kids | 0 comments

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One of the questions I am most often asked is if a child is presenting with sensory responses or behavioral challenges. This question can be difficult to answer as oftentimes challenges with sensory experiences can result in behaviors and vice versa. The most important thing to remember in either a sensory or behavior-based situation is to provide your child with an intervention BEFORE the meltdown occurs. When your child reaches the point of no return, the brain is not ready to listen. Here are a few key differences between sensory responses and behavioral challenges:

Special thanks to Collaborative Corner for providing this resource.

  1. Use proactive responses
    • When you see signs that a meltdown may occur, offer breaks for the body and brain to regroup. The behavior can only be prevented if we address it before the breakdown occurs. A common technique is to analyze the ABCs of behavior: the antecedent (what occurs before the behavior), the behavior, and the consequence (the result of the behavior). If you are able to identify what happens right before the behavior or the antecedent, we can see if that antecedent is sensory in nature or a behavioral response to an undesired event.
  2. Self-injurious behaviors occur more commonly with sensory concerns
    • When you really want something and are unable to attain it, we typically see attention-seeking behaviors or a meltdown to attempt to get what you want. If the child has a sensory response to a stimulus, it is often innate and can result in self-injurious behaviors as the child loses the concept of safety and is focused on returning the body to a stable balance.
  3. Notice if the child’s response to the stimulus is the same across all situations
    • If a child mentions that they do not like ketchup on his or her hamburger at home and yet there is not a problem when they eat it in the school setting, the response is different. When the response is different, the child is typically demonstrating a behavior and not a sensory response. A sensory response is triggered by the stimulus and is frequently the same no matter the context.
  4. Be aware of your response to your child
  • When a meltdown is about to happen, how do you respond? Children are quite smart and know how to push mom and dad’s buttons all too well. If we provide the response the child is looking for – we give them attention, yell, or even give them a tablet – this may indicate the child is demonstrating a behavioral challenge instead of a sensory response. The child’s intention is to get something out of the situation, indicating an understanding of how they are behaviorally responding. When it is sensory in nature, the child is not intending to gain anything from the situation.

A great book to read to find out more detailed information about sensory responses or behavioral challenges is the book titled: Is it Sensory or Is it Behavior? by Carolyn Murray-Slutsky. She does a great job breaking down each area and helping parents identify how best to prevent a child’s meltdown.

For any other questions, please feel free to reach out via email at

Alysha Stoner, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist


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