behaviour and sensory processing
behaviour and sensory processing

Behaviour and sensory processing

Sensory processing relates to how a person organises the information it receives from its own body and from the world around them.

Need to know: Sensory processing can present in challenging behaviour

Sensory processing relates to how a person organises the information they receive from their own body and the world around them.

Some children have an over-responsive sensory system: they might hate loud noises, or the feel of a tag on their t-shirt. Kids can become sensory avoidant because of these hypersensitivities. On the other hand, sensory-seeking children might chew on clothing or enjoy crashing into things. They are hyposensitive and are under-responsive to sensory stimulation. Both types of sensory responses can be displayed by the same child depending on the day, time and level of sensory stimulation.

Why it’s important

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder experience the world around them differently from other kids, because their brain has difficulty interpreting vital sensory information correctly.

You might not know this, but sensory input comes from 8 different sensory systems:

1. Visual – responsible for what we see 

2. Auditory – responsible for what we hear 

3. Olfactory – responsible for what we smell 

4. Gustatory – responsible for what we taste 

5. Tactile – responsible for touch sensation including pressure, temperature, and pain

6. Vestibular – responsible for our sense of balance by monitoring the position of our head in relation to our body and its movement

7. Proprioceptive – responsible for the sensation of joint and muscle movements and postural control

8. Interoception – responsible for detecting internal messages like hunger and thirst

All eight sensory systems contribute to a child’s learning, memory, behaviour, emotions, movement, and coordination.  When some of the signals coming from these systems are not interpreted correctly, children may become overwhelmed resulting in what adults see as a “meltdown”.

Family, teachers, and friends may only observe the outward result of compromised sensory systems; they only see the resulting behaviour, which can often lead to frustration, annoyance, and anger. These behavioural triggers are often unseen by adults and too much to comprehend, let alone control, for a child. 

Below are a few examples of the behaviour you might see from a child with a sensory processing disorder. There are many more and sometimes they can be misdiagnosed as a different condition.

Sensory seeking

  • Clumsy, bumps into everything, breaking objects
  • Very disruptive in class, often invading other students’ personal space
  • Wakes everyone up in the morning stomping around the house
  • Constantly smelling hands and everything around them
  • Sucks their hair or chews their clothing
  • Tries to engage in rough play
  • Talks loudly or seeks things to make noise with

Sensory avoidant

  • Uncooperative getting ready in the mornings, and always with an excuse about clothes that don’t feel right
  • Dinner time is stressful, refusing every meal 
  • Will do everything to avoid brushing teeth and having showers
  • Avoids hugs and physical affection, even from family
  • Dislikes play or activities that involve getting dirty
  • Runs off from school assemblies and noisy classrooms

If you are concerned, book in to see an Occupational Therapist to get a sensory profile for your child and to put together a sensory diet that you can follow at home.

Tips & strategies

There are things you can do at home and accommodations the teachers can implement at school to reduce the sensory input or provide a way to get more sensory input safely. Every child has individual needs but these are some strategies that can support your child. 

For sensory avoidant children (hypersensitive)

1. Visual

  • Consider coloured glasses to reduce the brightness
  • Reduce clutter in the classroom and visual input from posters and hanging items

2. Auditory 

  • Be considerate of TV and music volume at home
  • Allow the use of ear defenders in the classroom and other environments 

3. Olfactory 

  • Avoid cleaning products or perfumes with strong smells
  • Ensure the child’s seat is not near bins or areas with strong smell

4. Gustatory 

  • Note which foods provoke a negative response and provide alternatives 
  • Don’t force a child to eat foods that trigger their sensitivities

5. Tactile

  • Talk to your family about different ways that they can show affection 
  • Seat the student with enough space around them, and/or use a personal floor mat to keep a safe space

6. Vestibular 

  • Avoid long car trips if your child gets motion sickness
  • Allow the student to sit out triggering activities

7. Proprioceptive

  • Practice climbing, jumping and stomping
  • Sing and clap a beat

8. Interoception

  • Practice breathing and meditation techniques
  • Allow regular breaks throughout the day and especially during sporting activities

For sensory-seeking children (hyposensitive)

1. Visual

  • Create sensory bottles or allow them to watch TV 
  • Allow drawing and art breaks

2. Auditory 

  • Play music in the background
  • Modulate voice and use visual supports

3. Olfactory 

  • Encourage lots of outdoor play in nature
  • Allow student to use aromatherapy oil roll-on, hand cream, or fresh herbs

4. Gustatory 

  • Cook strong tasting food by adding spices or chilli 
  • Allow student to use sensory chewable items, chewing gum or mint lollies

5. Tactile

  • Provide lots of tactile sensory opportunities like putty creations
  • Redirect the need to touch to things like a stress ball or silicon fidget tool

6. Vestibular 

  • Test out different parks with swings and merry-go-rounds
  • Offer lots of breaks that allow the child to spin safely

7. Proprioceptive

  • Practice doing wall push-ups and bouncing on a yoga ball
  • Stretch a resistance band with hands

8. Interoception

  • Regular reminders to eat and drink
  • Give extra opportunities to use the bathroom



  1. How Sensory Processing Issues Affect Kids in School
  2. Does My Child Have SPD?
  3. Sensory Processing Difficulties, Behavioral Problems, and Parental Stress in a Clinical Population of Young Children – PMC
  4. Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids | UC San Francisco
  6. Sensory Processing Disorder Ultimate Guide | Growing Early Minds
  7. Sensory seeking and sensory avoiding: What you need to know
  8. Interoception and sensory processing challenges

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