This is one of the most common questions I am asked as an OT – ‘is it sensory or is it behavior’?  

The short answer is – YES.

Let me explain.

One of the ways the Merriam Webster dictionary website defines behavior is – ‘anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation’.

How do we perceive that stimulation?  Through our sensory systems. Remember that sensory processing is something everyone does.  We all take in information from our senses, interpret that information and then react (or behave) a certain way. 

Technically, everything we do is based on some sort of sensory input. Everything we do is behavior.  Some behavior may be helpful and some is not.   And of course, all behavior is communication.   As an adult, we are usually able to respond to situations with appropriate and helpful behavior.  But, what if you are super stressed, anxious, hungry, tired?  Do you ever engage in unhelpful behavior in those situations?  If we can have trouble regulating sometimes, imagine how hard it can be for our students.   This is why it’s really hard to separate out sensory vs. behavior in my opinion, especially for our students on the autism spectrum. There are just so many factors to consider and I think it’s all so connected.  

So, while I can’t give you a crystal ball or definitive answers,  I do have some ideas on how you can work with your team to figure out how to help your students succeed.  

Be a behavior detective

  • I know I just said it’s really hard to say if something is purely sensory vs. behavior; however, we still have to try to figure out why a challenging behavior is occurring.  We have to analyze what happens before, after, the environment, etc.  While behavior technically stems from sensory input, we can’t say that all challenging behaviors stem from difficulty processing sensory input.  I think about my child at Target.  He asks me frequently if he can get a Hot Wheels car.  If I tell him no, he may cry and yell.  If I give him the car, he stops.  The function of that behavior (crying and yelling) was not due to a sensory processing difficulty – he was throwing a tantrum because he wanted a toy.  When he got what he wanted, he stopped crying.  But, I’m sure we’ve all worked with students who cry and yell but do not stop, even when given the preferred item.  They do not appear to be in control of themselves.  This may be more along the lines of a child who is crying or yelling because of a sensory processing difficulty.  Again, every child is different, but you can use this general idea to help with problem solving.

Consider sensory aspects of tasks and environments

  • The ABC data will really help you do this.  What happened right before the behavior? What was the behavior – what type of sensory input would you get (or not) from that behavior?  What happened right after? Look at the sensory aspect of the environment – noise, light, visual stimulation, seating, movement opportunities. Could the student be hungry, tired, anxious? Sensory may not be the whole answer but could help guide your conversations.

Be proactive

  • As you work with your team to design a plan to tackle the target behaviors, remember the words of Winnie Dunn – the world is a sensory experience.  Sensory processing does NOT have to happen in a designated space or room.  Think creatively of ways to meet students sensory needs as part of their natural routines throughout the day.  Along the same lines, learning your student’s triggers or signals can be important to prevent challenging situations from arising.  This is where all of your analysis will be so helpful.  

Avoid taking away a child’s access to sensory input as a punishment 

  • Think of recess.  It is the best part of the day for most elementary students.  But – who gets recess taken away? It’s usually the students who make poor behavior choices during the day, like not sitting still, not completing work, not paying attention. To me, those behaviors are screaming out that a child may need more sensory input, not less!!  Could you imagine if movement was your main way to get the regulating sensory input you need and after a super hard day at work, your gym was closed?  Remember that we ALL need sensory input and self regulation is a skill that takes a really long time to learn.  Do not take away a child’s access to this input – you will be fighting an uphill battle.
  • I know this can be tricky for our students with autism because many sensory activities are inherently rewarding and motivating for them.  They may be used as part of a behavior intervention plan where a student is working for access to these items.  What happens if the student doesn’t earn those items? I would encourage you to work with your OT, to be proactive and think creatively about how a student can have natural opportunities for sensory input throughout the day that are not contingent upon earning access to them.  

When students are in a very heightened state, focus on safety and give it time

  • At times of heightened emotion or stress, our brains literally shut down.  Higher level cognitive processes are simply not working.  I learned at a conference once that your brain is like a car. The brain stem, which houses our most basic functions including the flight or fight response, is the trunk of the car. When you are upset, you are in the trunk. You won’t be able to make any rational decisions.  You are operating in fight or flight mode. So when our students are super upset, they just simply cannot process. We may need to help keep them safe.  They may need time and space until they are ready.  

Combine a good sensory rich day with solid environmental and behavioral supports

  • If the question continues to be, ‘it is sensory or behavior’, I think it pits us against each other.  Instead, having conversations to ensure a students sensory needs are met and implementing appropriate behavior supports throughout the day and across environments will be the most effective in my opinion!  In my more structured therapy sessions I do this all the time.  I ensure the child engages in appropriate sensory activities, and I pair that with a mini schedule for the session and even a reward at the end depending on the child (such as time to play a game on my iPad).  It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. I think we can use both sensory and behavioral strategies together effectively.  

I’ll leave you with this – I can’t remember where I heard it but I love it.  Children want to do their best.  And when they can, they will!  If they are struggling, something is getting in the way and we need to figure out how to help them.  Rely on your team and the unique perspective each person brings to the table. We truly are better together.

Special thanks to my teacher and therapist friends for helping me gather photos for this post!

This blog post is for informational purposes only.  The information provided is general in nature.  Please contact your child’s occupational therapist for specific recommendations.  

Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L

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