Transcript – “Is it sensory, or is it behavior?”

This post is a transcript. The video can be found here.

When I come in and do a sensory evaluation with a kid, then I will do a standardized assessment where I end up getting scores from caregivers who know them. And those tell me what type of sensory processing style that child has. And so that’s kind of like the foundational place to begin to understand it if you want to understand like what sensory means a little more specifically.

Usually when people say sensory, a lot of times they think of the sensory seekers because those are the kids who are usually the most visible, because, like the name sounds, they’re usually seeking sensation. They might be seeking movement, they might be seeking sound. And so they’re the ones who are like, bouncing off the walls and making a lot of noise and might be really adventurous with eating and things like that.

And also, I guess, to back it up one step, even more basic than the sensory profiles is that there are of course, like hearing, seeing, smell, taste, touch, you learn about those kind of in school. And then there are other types of senses as well. There’s your vestibular sense, which is your inner ear, like your sense of balance. There’s your proprioceptive sense, which is like your deep body sense of pressure and touch and hugs and squeezes — more so than just light touch, like I’m touching something.

And then there’s your interoception sense, which is your inner body sense of like, do I need to use the toilet? Am I feeling hungry? Am I angry? Being able to interpret your own body’s cues as to like what you’re feeling. Those, there are probably more senses. But those are usually the senses that I talk about, when I’m talking about sensory things. There are eight of them.

And then, so there are these four sensory profiles. So the sensory seekers is the first one that I that I mentioned. And the one that people usually think of.

This isn’t, this is not something where it’s like, “Oh, if a child needs OT, then that means they have a type of sensory profile.” Everybody in the world has a type of sensory profile.

–And I’m also going to make these slides available to you guys. Like you’re totally welcome to take notes. But I will make the slides. Yeah, no, you’re good.–

Um, so like, just like, just like somebody wouldn’t be like, “Oh, I’ve been diagnosed as an introvert or an extrovert” — like you just are, everybody is. Or you might be somewhere along the line or you might kind of fluctuate from one to the other. This is just a description of something that everybody is. Everybody processes sensory input, like you– to be a human being, you process sensory input in some kind of way. At the extremes of what’s expected, then it might like look dysfunctional, or the way in which you’re processing it might look dysfunctional, or look abnormal compared to what you see in other people. But it’s not like just having a sensory processing style is dysfunctional, because everybody has one.

So sensory seekers: in my cutesy demonstration of what the sensory types are, that’s the tall mug. It says “Big cup, let’s fill it up.” They’re the ones who are active about getting what they need, and they have a high tolerance for sensory input.

It’s easy to kind of go from that to the sensory avoiders, or in this one the “little teacup”, because they are also active about getting what they need. But they have a low tolerance for sensory input. So they’re the sensory avoiders. They’re usually the ones who might be wearing headphones to block out extra noise. Or even if it’s not like wearing noise cancelling headphones, a lot of adults will like keep a earbud in, or keep your hood up because it kind of diminishes the noise a little bit. I see people covering their ears when the jets go over. And they’re grown people. Because it’s really loud and annoying. That might be avoiding. It’s a type of sensation that’s overwhelming to them.

Sensory avoiders could look like the kids who like can’t focus on what they’re doing in class because of other things going on in the room that are overwhelming their threshold for how much sensation they can take in and be able to focus on what it is that they’re doing. So these are the two types who are the ones that are that are active, that have active strategies. High tolerance, low tolerance, but both active.

Then on the other side of the scale, we have people who are more passive in their strategies for getting the type of sensory input that they need. And still high tolerance, low tolerance. So that’s kind of how the how the chart works.

But to explain those a little bit further, I’m going to go from sensory seeking, sensory avoiding, to sensory sensitive. [Speaker is gesturing at the chart while talking.] Sensory sensitive kids– and just people– have a low tolerance for sensory input and they don’t have active strategies, they have kind of passive strategies for dealing with it. So those are often the kids who go into meltdown or go into shutdown when they’re overwhelmed, and they might not have any idea why they’re doing it and their body doesn’t have good strategies for what to do to help try to get themselves into a better, like more regulated place, because they’re just overwhelmed. And that’s just like all they know. Then the, the like, “little cup, prone to overflow” is how how that one’s kind of summed up as, and when it overflows, then that’s kind of the meltdown or shutdown mode. So that could be kids who like run out of the classroom, or kids who just like sit there and go into total freeze mode, because they just don’t know what’s expected of them, and they can’t even focus on it.

And then the people who are high have a high tolerance for sensory input and have passive strategies about it. It’s called “The Big Chill Vessel” in my teacup analogy, or the sensory “missers”. They’re often the ones who are just like missing what’s going on. They usually also get missed, which is an interesting component of it in terms of when people are like telling me something that they think is a behavior problem, and I think is a sensory problem. These are a lot of times the kids who get overlooked because they often look content, they’re like sitting there, they’re being quiet, they’re not… they have a high tolerance, but they’re not actively seeking it. So they don’t look like the sensory seekers who are fidgeting with everything and, you know, accidentally just kicked another kid because they’re flopping around on the carpet. They’re just like sitting there. And what the teacher is saying, isn’t going into their mind, because it doesn’t have enough sensory input for them to be able to tune into it. But they’re not going to do anything about that. They’re just kind of going to sit there and look content and look quiet and look like not a behavior problem. So then it might get missed that they’re also not getting like the instruction that they need to be getting, because they’re not connecting with with what’s being told to them. Oh, I had a handy chart that I could have clicked to on the next one. But that that shows how it goes from passive to active and low tolerance to high tolerance. Now…

audience member
Is it common for them to have two sensory styles?

I was about to say that that! Yeah, there are different ways in which people– all people, not just kids– can have more than just one. Some people really know that they really fit into two categories almost all of the time. Some people are like, “Well, in the morning, you know, when I was pretty regulated and pretty well rested, I was a real sensory seeker. But then as the day went on, I you know, I wore out and my reserves got tapped out and I became more of a sensory avoider.” Some people like change across them through the lifespan, like as they get older, and and you know, have better strategies or things like that. And then some people are just kind of all over the place or…

audience member
Or different kind of senses?

Yes, that’s the– thank you. Thank you. That’s the other one is that people can totally be like: “I am very sensory seeking with movement, but I am very sensory avoidant with noise,” or, or something like that, that’s totally a really common thing with people. And again, it’s not just that being in one of these categories is dysfunctional. But often when I see a kid who like if I, there’s not like numbers to like plot on a point here, but if I was plotting on a point, and I saw a kid who was like way down here, versus a kid who’s like here [gestures toward the middle], then that would be more likely for them to need like some kind of OT help or intervention. Or if I see a kid who’s like way up here, then it’s like, okay, it’s great that your body has a lot of strategies for getting what you need. But it’s not great when it looks like running away from school and running into the road or, or things like that. And so it’s the points at which they become kind of the extremes of the of the chart, that’s when you start looking at some kind of intervention.

The types of senses. Those are the five that everybody learns in school. And then these are the ones that that I mentioned that you’ve probably more likely haven’t heard of, because they’re kind of the more specific ones. Knowing the different sensory profiles and knowing the different types of senses means that you can see more clearly like what it is that could be going on for a child that isn’t just, oh, they’re behaving badly, or oh, they’re, they’re doing this because, you know, they they don’t have clear boundaries or an adult is, you know, not controlling them well enough or things like that.

These are some examples of the kinds of things that you might think if you if you were thinking about it from a from a from a sensory informed point of view: “I wonder if he might be sensitive to sound. And that’s why he’s doing that.” “I wonder if you might be seeking out movement.”

And that’s why knowing what developmental norms are, and age appropriate expectations, can help us be aware of the fact that all kids have sensory needs, like all day long. And a lot of times I would say that like the average is that kids like are generally, they might be leaning into one of the one of the four categories more strongly, but they’re kind of generally closer to the middle. Like the average person is going to be generally closer to the middle. They might have some strategies in some situations. They might not have some strategies in some situations. And kids are, like, born with a generally good sense of like getting what they need– at the expense of anyone else around them and any other needs that anybody else has and any other social considerations and anything at all, like, because they’ll just start getting their needs met. And it’s kind of all about other stuff that builds up across the lifespan, as you start to learn, like, “No, you can’t just run out of the room, when you’re tired of listening. No, you can’t just, you know, lay down on the floor when you don’t want to walk over there.” Like those kinds of things kind of get built up over time. But kids usually start with a pretty instinctive understanding that like they can do things that make themselves feel better. And so it’s kind of a balancing act for adults to not just like, try to squash that. Because we do want them to like grow into adults who can like know that they can do things to make themselves feel better. We just want it to be like in a way that also takes consideration of other factors that adults are better at considering all the factors.

So oops, I scrolled too hard. I hear the word “behavior” used almost as vaguely as I hear the word “sensory” used. It’s often used as a euphemism for negative things, like “behavior I don’t like” or “misbehavior”, or “attention seeking behavior” or “inconvenient behavior for the situation”. Because very rarely is anyone like, “We want to talk with you about your child’s behavior. They are so wonderful and friendly and kind to everyone they meet and they behave great,” but like the word “behave”, doesn’t actually inherently mean “misbehavior”. Behave just means like, how you’re being, how you’re acting.

You’ve probably heard somebody say the the phrase behavior is communication, because it’s a catch phrase that’s gaining more traction. Behavior is early self advocacy, like I was just describing with children kind of instinctually having an idea of how to get their needs met. That’s because they just, like if you think of behavior, again, not as negative behavior, but just as going around doing stuff, they go around doing the things that they feel like they need to do and should do and would help them in some way. They might not be like, safe, because they’re 18 months old, and they have no idea like what is or isn’t safe or what is or isn’t wise for other reasons. But it is like a form of early self-advocacy, before they can even talk to you, then they’re telling you with what they do with their body what it is that they need, or what it is that they think that they need. And then you can kind of (with an adult lens on it) be able to take that into consideration as you figure out the best way forward.

Imagine you have a nine month old baby and you’re trying to spoon feed them and they keep turning their head away. If you’re being like, really, really controlling, you might be like, [angry tone of voice] “Oh, I’m frustrated! They’re not eating this food, and I’m just trying to feed them and they need food in their body!” But most people would recognize that that would be a really excessive reaction to the baby. They might be trying to tell you something. It might be any one of like a dozen things. It could be like, “Oh, my mouth is still full, I’m still swallowing,” or like, “I actually don’t like the taste of this.” Or it could be like, “Oh, the dog just ran by. And I’m more interested in that.” So you kind of have to be a detective and and try to interpret what it is that they’re telling you what their behavior. But before they have the capacity to communicate in words, they can demonstrate it with their body language and their actions.

And then an important sub-point to that is that even children who do have the ability to communicate in words can often lose it in flooded or stressful situations. Language and other higher reasoning functions are often the first thing to go, which is also true for adults. And like all people, not just kids, when you get stressed out and overloaded, then the part of your brain that’s tapped in your intellect is not the part that’s, that’s driving the bus.

Because of the way that behavior requires that kind of detective interpretation, then that means that the same behavior can be heavily influenced by what adult is interpreting the situation. Two adults with two different levels of understanding and context on the situation, and in two different adult emotional headspaces, can have completely different opinions on a child’s behavior. So let’s say I go into a classroom and watch a child try to interact with peers by grabbing their toy and running away laughing. Then an adult who knows them really well, and has known them the whole time — I’m kind of describing a [local preschool name] situation — so the adult who’s known them, you know, their whole time here knows that they’re hoping to get the other kid to chase them and be their friend and play with them.

But a new adult to the situation might be like, “Look, I mean, they’re being mean and the other kid’s crying and they don’t even care and that’s terrible of them!” But the thing that the child did was the same in both situations. It was just what the adult knew and what the adult thought that interpreted how that child’s behavior was interpreted.

And so then when we take that over into decisions that we’re making throughout the day that influence the child’s life or you know, the peer situation or all of it, then it’s a very powerful position that we have to be interpreting their behavior. And kind of naming it or assigning a value judgment to it or things like that, when it could have meant something else. Even if we knew them really well, it could theoretically have meant something else. So we always kind of have to keep that in mind. Behavior might mean any one of a dozen different things.

Um, so when I get to, what I get is the privilege of working in a very one on one context. When I pull a kid for OT then it’s just me and them. And that’s obviously a very different context than a lot of teachers and a lot of subs are coming in to where you have to, like, take everybody’s needs into account in the whole classroom, which can be really challenging. Or even just like groups or, you know, trying to juggle the different sensory or behavioral needs of a group of kids. What I recommend — and this is like a little bit of like longer term strategies, so in terms of like subbing for one day, this is not necessarily… you can’t necessarily come in and change the way that the classroom is being run, of course. But I do feel like it’s good to keep in mind that really non-OT level of intervention. Like not at the level where it’s like, “Oh, this needs to be IEP services. And this needs to be specific special intervention.” But just on the “everybody having a better life” intervention level.

Just build in feel-good strategies throughout your day. And sometimes when I’m writing IEPs, I use words like “calming strategies” or “coping strategies”. But when I’m talking about it at a more general level, I like to just use the words “feel-good strategies”. Because, again, those are things that people usually instinctually do throughout the day. They do things that make themselves feel better, and they kind of tend to avoid the things that make themselves feel worse, unless there’s a reason why they kind of need to suck it up and do that for like a short amount of time. Even then, you probably try to minimize the amount of time that you have to do it.

And so when you’re working with kids, you can like explicitly teach this stuff, you can brainstorm coping strategies together. [aside, in reference to the slides] –I don’t know how this is gonna do. Oh, yeah. each one individually… Great.–

Adults do these things all the time, we stand up and stretch or walk around when we need to move. I jiggle my leg or twirl my pen or put fidgets in my pocket and fidget with them while I’m sitting in IEP meetings, or know I’m going to be sitting for an extended period of time. I can generally — maybe not if I’m in the middle of a session with a kid, but I generally am allowed to go to the bathroom when I need to. I am generally allowed to eat a snack when I’m hungry. Or if I know I’m going to be in a situation where I can’t, then I plan ahead and I try to do it to deal with that. I am generally allowed to put down a task that is frustrating to me and take a break and come back to it later or come back to it tomorrow and work on a different thing right now. I can usually talk to my friends or my co-workers or rant or vent about something that’s stressing me out. I can usually change the sensory environment that I’m in. I can turn the lights on or off, if I need more alertness or if it’s too much and my head hurts. I can put on music or I can turn it off if it’s stopping me from being able to focus. I can doodle or daydream. I have the privilege of being able to look like I’m not paying attention without other people coming and assuming that I’m not paying attention, then telling me that I need to pay better attention. And I can kind of reward myself when I want to. Like I don’t actually have to answer to anybody else about whether or not I get to eat some chocolate, or get to you know, a lot of these things. Take a break. A lot of these things get used as rewards and they’re actually kind of just sensory needs.

Kids kind of run up against barriers in like many if not all of those of those situations. And so I feel like that’s where the solution to that is not to say all kids can do everything that they want to at any second, always. Just like adults can’t because obviously there are good reasons why we we have controls on some of those things. But I do think that making it a collaborative discussion where you talk about what kinds of things make you feel good or those kinds of scenarios can you use those things in.

Which things that make you feel good can you use while you’re in class and you need to still stay focused, versus which things that make you feel good can you use while you’re outside and you have a break for recess? You know? If running really fast is really exciting and exhilarating and makes you feel like you’ve gotten to use all your muscles and get all your energy out. Great! Great strategy for recess, bad strategy for math. But we can still come up with ones that fit the different the different scenarios.

–So this was this was originally written to a to a teacher audience and that’s why– oops, that’s why I said– no, no, that didn’t go back. Just went forward again.–

That’s why I said, practicing one [feel-good strategy] each week. Because that’s the the context in which I was thinking of it, which obviously, is not the same for us for a subbing situation.

But you can still have conversations with kids about like, what is it that would help you when you’re feeling this. And it’s usually not best to have those conversations at the time when they’re already feeling this, it’s usually best to have those conversations at the time when they’re feeling relatively regulated, and can kind of imagine how they would feel. Because if you’re already escalated, and I’m like, “What would make you feel better,” I might just be like, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m just feeling terrible right now. And I can’t have an intellectual discussion about it, because I’m losing access to my language capabilities.” And so the goal of this being to make space for children to be able to listen to their own body, when the majority of expectations placed on children in a day are often requiring them to ignore their own body. It takes some time to undo that and to raise their own level of self awareness.

This is why I use this terminology, “feel-good strategies”, because I think that calming and coping suggest — for one, “calming” suggests that everyone is “up” all the time, and needs to be brought “down”, which is not necessarily true. Because we know from the sensory missers, and the sensory sensitive kids, that they might be like below the threshold, and they need to be brought “up”. So I think that “calming” isn’t necessarily the right word in those scenarios. “Coping” I feel like, to me, just says something has to already be going wrong, and you have to be coping with it. Or like, you know, just your life in general has to be kind of stressing you out and you have to be coping with it. And while that might be true, I don’t necessarily want to like mandate that it be true for all kids at all times. That’s why I use the word [feel-good] strategies.

This is my kind of step by step of taking a brain and body break. I do give some suggestions like: draw a picture, jump up and down, get a drink of water, take big deep breaths, those are some things that you could suggest to a kid if they have absolutely no idea where to begin, in terms of what it is that might make their body feel better.

This question gets asked to me a lot, and it’s also the title of the presentation. Is it “sensory” or is it behavior? And I, I usually look at the person and I ask, why does it matter? Like not in a dismissive way. But like, what is the actual reason for asking? Why does that matter? Does it matter because it’s going to change how we respond to the child? Does it matter because it’s going to change what supports we give access to them for? A lot of times, I feel like the only reason why people are asking is because they think that sensory concerns are valid and behavioral concerns are not. Or that sensory concerns are something that they don’t really understand and should ask [OTs] about, and behavioral concerns are something that they totally have on lock, and it just means that the kid needs to get their act together.

So like, I feel like a lot of times, that’s the reason why people are asking you this. And, and I would encourage them that if it’s if it’s a sensory concern: We might know that there’s a problem, because of the way we see the child behaving. We might investigate what’s going on for the child’s brain and body to make it difficult to meet that expectation. We might change something, it could be the environment, it could be the expectations, it could be the supports for the child. And we understand that it might take some time, like we might need to do some trial and error. Versus if it’s a behavioral problem that we’re talking about: We might know that there’s a problem because of the way that the child is behaving. We might investigate what’s going on for the child’s brain and body that’s making it hard for them to meet the expectation. We might change something, it could be the environment, or the supports, or the expectations of the child. And then we might understand that it’s gonna take some trial and error and it might take some time.

So when it comes down to it from my perspective, I feel like the education is really important. Learning the things about different sensory processing or different sensory profiles or what could be going on for the child, like having more language to talk — as adults — about what those things are and what they mean for the child. I think that’s all super important. So it’s not that asking this question is like inherently not important or nonsensical or anything like that. I just think that at the end of the day, once we start trying to to piece it apart and see what it is that we can do to help the child get to a place where they can meet the expectations, and the expectations that are being asked of them are reasonable, then the end result is going to look pretty similar, regardless of which which path it is that we decide to name the problem as well. That might be the last slide. Hey, there you go.

Um, do you guys have any questions for me? I managed to do that in 26 minutes. I know that I did that via skimming over everything about sensory processing, which is usually what people want to know about. But also, if you have any other questions, I’m happy to answer as long as I can get a drink of water. My interception is telling me that.

audience member
I have a question. At the beginning, you were talking about active and passive strategies. So active strategies, what are those exactly, and what was passive strategies?

That’s a super great question. Yes. And I actually have a whole other section that I skipped for time purposes. And instead, I’m just going to tell it to you. And if anybody runs out of time and needs to leave, then please do that.

Yes, I actually did a post about this recently, and a bunch of people had questions about like, what does passive strategies even mean? Like, what are you talking about? And so I broke it down into like, four hypothetical kids. A kid who’s sensory missing, a kid who’s sensory sensitive, a kid who’s sensory avoidant, and a kid who’s sensory seeking. And before I like read about them, then, again, most kids are not actually just one thing, they might move through them throughout the day, they might be one for one type of sense, but not the other. Or they might be like two or three of them, that’s all normal and not like an inherent sign of being dysfunctional or anything like that.

So I’m saying, let’s say that there’s a particular classroom that has a sensory sensitive kid named Sam. Sam the sensory sensitive. And then there is a sensory avoiding kid named Alex. Alex the avoidant. I’m going to this [slide] so that you have a visual with it. So I’ve got the two who are both low tolerance, because you can kind of understand how both, how they can correspond to one another. They both have a low tolerance for sensory input, but one of them is avoidant, and one of them is sensitive. So Sam and Alex are both supposed to be doing independent work time. And there’s a quiet background noise that’s happening. Maybe there’s a fan going and it’s like a little bit rattly or something like that. It bothers both of them.

They may or may not be aware that it is bothering them, because especially depending on how young they are, they might not have any idea that what they are bothered by is the sound of a fan going. They just know that they it feels wrong in their body, and they can’t focus on what it is that they’re doing. So Alex the avoider sits down to do their quiet independent work time. And Alex is singing and humming to themselves while they’re doing their work. And their body is just like instinctually going: “There’s a problematic noise, I know what I can do, I can cover that up with a noise that I’m in control of.”

From the outside, the teacher might be like, “All you’re doing is contributing to the amount of decibels in the room. Like, this is a problem.” But to Alex, they’re like, “Oh, that? You know, I’m in control of this one. I’m not in control of that one. So this feels less problematic to me, because I know I can start it or stop it. I know what it sounds like.”

audience member
He’s the avoider?

He’s the avoider. Yep. And then meanwhile, Sam the sensitive sits down to do their quiet independent work time. And their body just kind of is in this like panicky, unfocused mode, because “All I can think about is the noise.” Again, even if they’re not thinking of it at like a conscious, like, “I hear a noise and it bothers me and I can put that in language” level. But it’s like, “My brain can’t focus on the thing I’m supposed to do, teacher wants me to do the thing. I can’t do the thing for some reason. I can’t even think about why I can’t do the thing.” So they might, they might just like sit there silently staring at the page if they’re the kind of kid who tends to go into “freeze” instead of like “fight or flight”. They might explode or scream or melt down, which would be kind of the more “fighty” of the fight or flight or freeze. And then they might like literally elope or run away or, you know, get up and go to some other part of the room.

And that obviously then catches the attention as like looking like a behavioral problem. It also then, like makes the conversation about something else. And so “What was the precursor?” might get totally muddled. Because the you know, the teacher is not aware that there was a noise that was bothering them. Sam might not be aware that there was a noise that was bothering them. Especially if Sam’s, like, a kindergartener or something. And so, you know, now the teacher is like, “Oh, every time he’s supposed to do independent work, he runs away from the table.” And nobody knows the thing that we have to back it all the way up to.

Um, so then what I did a similar comparison between sensory seeker and sensory misser. Which also started — backing up for one more second, Alex might also get reported as a behavioral problem, because it’d be like, “I talked with Alex and I’m like, ‘Hey, are you supposed to sing when our voice is at a level zero, we’re doing our independent work?’ And they’re like, ‘No, you’re not supposed to sing.’ and you’re like, ‘Okay, but you’re singing,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I won’t sing anymore.’ And then they go back and they start singing again.” And you’re like, “No, he knows the rule. He told me he knows the rule, and he’s just breaking the rule.” And it’s like, he’s just going into his body’s instinctual, “This is how I solve this problem.” Yeah, yeah. So that’s really a very active strategy in the sense of like, “I’m covering up the sound with a different sound.” But it could totally be — in a different situation, could totally be just like “I’m doing something that makes myself feel better when I have to tolerate this uncomfortable thing.” So if, if he started, like, rocking back and forth, or something like that. That wasn’t actually covering up the sound, wasn’t doing anything to solve the sound, but it does make him feel better, better enough that he can tolerate the sound, but then he’s still not doing his work. So we’re just like, why is he not doing his work?

audience member
And then you have a teacher who’s sensory sensitive with the sensory avoider humming…

Yes! Yes, and then the adult sensory profile gets mixed in as well. And it’s like, absolutely. So then I’ve got my hypothetical classroom with Sensory Missing Max and Sensory Seeking Sage, and they’re both supposed to sit quietly with their hands in their lap and criss-cross-applesauce and have — oh, what’s the word — “Whole Body Listening”, while the teacher instructs the group about something. And both of them have a high tolerance for sensory input. And it’s not only their tolerance in terms of what they can handle before they melt down, but it’s also how much is needed to engage their brain. And so neither of them are taking in anything that the teacher is saying. Because this teacher is not being super engaging, and is not using visuals, and is just, like, standing there lecturing at them for some reason.

And so both of them are just— all of it’s going in one ear and out the other. But Sensory Seeking Sage is like “I’m gonna wiggle, and I’m gonna fidget with the rug, and— whoops I accidentally pulled a thread out of the rug and half the rug is gone. And— oh, shoot, I accidentally hit a kid in the face cause I was wiggling.” You know? And Max is probably sitting there zoning all the way out. Like, Max is like “This was not engaging enough for my brain to click with it, so I will sit here and smile and be quiet because those are the things I’m supposed to do.” And that’s why those are often the kids that get missed, because unless they’re missing so much that it’s impacting them academically to the point where they aren’t learning literacy and math skills and stuff like that, then it might just be like, “Oh yeah, they’re really good and quiet and content, and they’re really good in class, and, yep, the behavior, yep” and it just all went right over their head. Versus the Sensory Seeking Sage where they’re just like “[OTs] please just come stop this child, he ripped up the rug, and he hit another kid 37 times and we don’t know how, like, he has to sit on a little circle over by himself.” And it gets out of control really fast cause he’s doing his best to try to get his mind to be engaged. He’s like, “What can I do to get my mind engaged right now? I really would like to be part of this class.” But that’s too wiggly.

audience member
When does the sensory seeker burst?

Can you clarify a little bit…?

audience member
Like they’re already seeking. How do you know whenever they’re…too much?

Do you mean how can you tell whether it’s dysfunctional or just, like, being a kid?

audience member

That’s tricky, because the threshold is further down the line than what school demands are, is the problem. In a world where there’s no school and no systems that the kid has to be in, then like, running and jumping and playing and wiggling and climbing stuff all the time would not, like, be a problem. Like, the reasons why that is a problem is constraints we’ve put around them. So that becomes a really tricky one to parse out and to try to help come up with strategies that fit into the classroom setting and are okay for them to be engaging in. And I don’t know whether there’s an easy way to tell whether or not it’s past the point of dysfunction versus whether within normal expected development. I do think that if the kid is like— I have had times where a child doesn’t actually even seem like they’re enjoying themselves anymore. Like in the Action Room—I don’t know if you’ve been in the Action Room, but there’s stuff to climb on, there’s stuff to jump on, there’s stuff— and I’ve had kids who almost seem like, like, like desperate but they’re not, like, getting there. You know? Like— “Hey, this is an area where you can presumably meet those needs,” and they’re like, “This isn’t even enough.” Like how much time would kind of be enough? Then you try to build things in throughout the day, build breaks in throughout the day, or build sensory input in that they have that can help their mind stay alert, that doesn’t require outburst-level — because also, sensory seeking gets tied a lot to movement as a sense, but there’s a lot of other senses that we can target too. So obviously chewing gum at your desk is not going to cause as much movement or disruption as dancing at your desk. Just in literal, practical terms. So you kind of start trying to focus on some of the other things that you can build in without having to necessarily only be movement.

audience member
Are sensory seekers typically the runners?

Um, can be. Can also be avoiders. Pretty commonly—well, can also be sensitive because then they’re just going into “flight mode” and it’s not, like, being used as a strategy. It’s just like “I am in overwhelm and I get away.” Because bodies do also have like the fight/flight/freeze different kinds of reactions, and so someone who’s in flight might be… If they’re running because they’re like, “I really love to run!” then they’re probably a sensory seeker. If they’re running because they’re like, “Something terrible is happening over there and I’m getting away from it,” then they might be an avoider, and if they’re running because they’re like, “I don’t know man, everything’s bad and I’m out of here,” then that’s probably sensitive. If only I could telepathically get all of the kids to tell me exactly what it is that they’re thinking then I could probably parse it out a little more specifically, but.

audience member
But do they ever—the outbursts, I guess, is what I was asking with sensory seekers. Sensory avoiders or sensory sensitive might seem like they explode all the sudden because it built up, built up, built up. Do sensory seekers ever seem to like, have a meltdown? I guess…

Definitely. Definitely. All type of kids can have a meltdown. Especially because there’s blended styles and no one fits as neatly into boxes as much as Facebook images would suggest. They—you can—I’m trying not to be too “jargony”. A lot of times when I’m working with a real sensory-seeking kid, or when I’m with my own children at home who I’m the mom of, then I will roughhouse or do a really really intense sensory input activity for about 15-20 minutes, and then transition after that into a really calm activity, while knowing that the first 5-10 minutes of the transition are probably going to be garbage. So, like, before bedtime, with my own kids who I’m the mom of, we’ll run and play and roughhouse, and then we’ll stop, and I’ll kind of just sit on the couch—cause I used to try to go straight into reading a book and that was always absolute nonsense. And so I’ll sit on the couch and they’ll kind of climb all over me but I’m being calm with my body, and it’ll eventually kind of settle in for them, and then eventually they’ll calm down too and then we’ll read a book. A lot of times, people will try to be like, “Well this child is sensory seeking so we will just do off-the-charts sensory things all day long,” and you can overwhelm a sensory-seeking kid! Their bodies can go into overwhelm too. A lot of times it’s just kind of if it’s higher than the 15-20 minutes is a great little, like, bite-sized piece, and that helps the body regulate and settle and be able to focus on something. So I would say yes. One way in which kids who are sensory-seeking can go into overload or meltdown is if you’re doing something that’s supposed to be fun, like going to an amusement park or going on an outing and it’s like, “We’re doing big, great things all day long!”…it can still go into overload and meltdown if there’s not breaks built in or taking time to regulate in the middle of that. It’s not just an infinite threshold upward.