Bailey Reilly-Montes, MOT, OTR/L,
Lead Occupational Therapist

Children who experience sensory processing difficulties often feel and see the world in a different way than their peers. 

Imagine yourself in a day to day situation where something as simple as another child’s  light touch to your arm while playing is perceived as something that is threatening or even painful .  You would not feel the typical safety and enjoyment that other children experience while playing with peers.

These feelings of insecurity, along with a number of other internal and environmental factors, can lead children to have severe melt downs that last for hours. These responses can disrupt a family’s routine, caregiver roles, and the child’s ability to participate in social and cultural tasks.

Children who have sensory processing difficulties can present with BIG responses. These responses and feelings are very real to them, even when others don’t understand why or it seems insignificant. Children with sensory integration difficulties quickly slip into fight, flight, or fright modes when under stress that we often perceive as “behaviors.” That being said, as a protective or survival response to feedback that is not preferred, children can learn that if they cry, kick and hit, etc., they will get to avoid or escape the situation all together. This response is a negative learned response to a negative stimulus.

It is important to remember that ALL behavior serves a purpose and serves as a form of communication.  Behaviors are typically the result of three objectives:

  • Obtain a desired object or interaction
  • Avoid a situation
  • Escape an undesired situation or task demand

Our behavior is always conditional on how our sensory system is functioning at any point in time. Circumstances under which our sensory system does not function optimally include:

  • Illness or pain
  • High levels of stress (hungry, sleepy, increased task demands, unfamiliar people, places, or things)
  • Multiple recent changes in life, routine, and/or environment

For example, a child may get in trouble at school for not standing in line with peers and when corrected by their teacher, the child becomes defiant or emotional.

Possible explanation: The child may experience tactile defensiveness where getting accidently bumped or touched by peers may cause a defensive response. The child’s stress response is high when in line, thus avoiding situation with escaping and refusals.

“Occupational therapy practitioners often see children who are in distress and whose behavior is disruptive or upsetting to the family. Practitioners can help parents, caregivers, teachers, and children explore and understand their temperaments and learn to predict when behavior may not match environmental demands,” states Deborah Davidson.

Occupational therapists can help determine the difference between sensory and behavior. An occupational therapist can assist in identifying areas of difficulty for sensory regulation and provide modifications, adaptations, and other solutions to assist in a child decreasing stress responses to allow them to be as independent and functional as possible. 

Sensory Integration

The ability to take in information from all of the senses, process that information, and then produce an adaptive response. – Jane Ayres


An observable or measurable act.

To learn more, below are recommended references:

References are for informational purposes only and they are not intended to replace physician and/or occupational therapy treatment(s).


Resources for Sensory Integration Blog:

  • The Out of Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder By: Carol Stock Kranowitz, M. A.
  • Davidson, D.A. (2010). Psychosocial Issues Affecting Social Participation. In J. Case-Smith & J.C. O’Brien, Occupational Therapy for Children (6th ed.). Maryland Heights, Missouri: Mosby Elseiver.
  • Material adapted from Kay A. Toomey & Associates, Inc. 1990/2015