A Link Between Sensory Modulation and Behavior

A question that gets posed often is whether a child’s observable actions are “sensory” or “behavior” in nature as if it has to be one or the other. In reality, children with sensory modulation dysfunction are likely to exhibit behaviors such as defiance, hostility, and anger. Why? Because their brains are not efficiently modulating the sensory information they are taking in.

When the brain is processing efficiently, excitation and inhibition are balanced or modulated. This allows the individual to maintain an appropriate state of alertness and to distinguish between important information coming in, such as an alert to danger, and unimportant information, such as the constant buzz of an overhead light. However, for the individual with sensory modulation dysfunction, the sound of an overhead light buzzing, for example, may be intolerable due to over-responsiveness in the central nervous system (CNS). For this individual, the CNS is producing a fight-or-flight response, as if the sound was painful or an alert for danger. In response, the child may attempt to fight their way out of a situation or run away to avoid the stimuli.

It’s important when working with a child who has sensory modulation dysfunction to remember that these behaviors are a means of communication. Their behaviors may be communicating that they are experiencing sensory modulation dysfunction, which can fall into one of the three sub-types: sensory over-responsive, sensory under-responsive, or sensory seeking. As occupational therapists, our role is to identify which sub-type of modulation dysfunction the child is experiencing and which of the eight senses are impacted. It is common for children to be on one end of the modulation spectrum for one sense and on the opposite end of the spectrum for another sense. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s sensory modulation, please contact our office to set up an appointment for an occupational therapy evaluation.

-Molly Kincheloe, MS, OTR/L

-Glenna Nave, M.S., OTR/L

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