The ability to process and integrate sensory information gives an order to our world. But it isn’t always that simple. When a child has sensitivities, seeks out sensory information, has difficulty discriminating input, or experiences one of several other sensory challenges, their world and body feel disorganized. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is complex and challenging to navigate, and sometimes it can lead to aggressive behaviors.
So what’s the relationship between sensory processing disorder and aggressive behaviors? SPD affects the way an individual processes information. This can lead to challenges in everyday life such as difficulty with focus, emotional regulation, and communication.
The way an individual with SPD reacts to a specific type of unfavorable sensory stimulation (or lack thereof) is widely varied. Some people may withdraw, others use conscious or subconscious coping mechanisms, and others may remove themselves from the area entirely.
SPD can also lead to aggression in some cases. This is often due to the person feeling overwhelmed by their environment or feeling like they can’t escape the sensory input. Keep reading to learn more about sensory processing disorder and aggressive behavior and discover some helpful proactive strategies that help.
Sensory Processing Disorder and Aggressive Behavior
There is a complex relationship between sensory processing disorder and aggression.
Some people with sensory processing disorder may be more likely to react angrily in response to certain stimuli that others would not find as overwhelming. Other individuals with sensory processing disorder may have trouble regulating their emotions and may generally be more prone to outbursts.
In some cases, individuals with sensory processing disorder may be more likely to become aggressive if they feel overwhelmed or frustrated by their environment, or if they are unable to communicate their needs effectively. Additionally, certain types of aggression may be used as a way to express sensory discomfort or overload.
For example, a child with a sensory processing disorder may feel overwhelmed by too much noise or stimulation, which can lead to frustration and anger. Or, a child with a sensory processing disorder may not be able to understand or respond to social cues, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.
Let’s look more closely at the word ‘aggression.’ Merriam-Webster defines aggression as “a forceful action or procedure” and “hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior.” What this definition doesn’t include is specific intention. This is important because aggressions by children with SPD are often not the result of ‘acting out’ but a response to the sensory environment around them. Let’s dive into what causes these sensory meltdowns.
Observe and record information about the time and place that your child becomes aggressive. Is it at the grocery store when you are in a hurry? At the end of the day during bath time? Notice any common environmental patterns. These could be triggers. While triggers greatly vary from child to child, some common triggers include:
- Waiting in line (people are too close, there is limited room for movement)
- Changes in plans (the environment and scenario are different than what your child anticipated)
- Visiting the doctor or dentist (not knowing what kind of tactile input to expect or what will happen next)
- Getting dressed (needing to tolerate a variety of textures that feel uncomfortable)
- Events such as birthday parties or holiday celebrations (too much noise, visual stimulation, and navigating a small space with many people)
- Shopping (bright lighting, various noises, and movement)
- Dinnertime (food smells and textures, limited movement opportunities)
- Bath time (the feeling and temperature of the water, reverberating noise in a small bathroom)
How Parents Can Intervene
You know your child better than anyone else in the world. Try to recognize what it is that sets them off. Once you identify the exact factors that result in your child becoming aggressive, you can help them in a variety of ways, including:
- Avoid unnecessary triggers. Imagine it is the first day of school. Your child eagerly anticipates what the day will be like, seeing their peers and meeting their teacher. If you have already identified that they can become aggressive when exposed to noise, let them use the noise-canceling headphones on the bus. This way, the child can focus their attention on the other challenges that arise on the first day of school.
- Plan ahead. The best time to intervene when children display aggressions is before they even occur. What does that mean? Since you know your child’s triggers, you can anticipate where they will need help. For example, you might offer tight bear hugs and model belly breathing while in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Going to a school concert? Bring along noise-canceling headphones and pick a seat with easy access to an exit.
- Learn and grow together. When you have the time and space, venture out into one of the environments that can be difficult for your child. Try venturing out on a quiet evening rather than go to the grocery store during the after-school rush. You can practice strategies together and create small wins.
Strategies for Avoiding Escalating Aggression
In the ideal situation, you would want to avoid any episodes of sensory processing disorder and aggressive behavior. And, if that’s not entirely possible, you would want to be able to defuse any aggressive situations quickly. The following strategies may help.
Engage in Proprioceptive Stimulating Activities
Proprioception is a lesser-known sensory system that gives us information about where our bodies are in space. Think of it as the ‘body awareness’ sense. The sensory receptors are in the muscles, joints, and tendons. But what does this have to do with decreasing aggressive behavior? When the proprioceptive system is stimulated, it helps the brain and body feel calm. It is most effective to provide heavy work input before an incident occurs or as soon as you can see your child escalating.
Give your child a choice between two or three of these activities:
- Wheelbarrow walking
- Carrying a weighted ball or heavy books
- Chewing sugar-free gum or eating crunchy foods like raw carrots
- Animal walks
- Climbing on playground equipment
- Bear hugs
- Pulling a sibling or another heavy item in a wagon
- Exercise (running, soccer, hiking, and obstacle courses work well)
The calming effect of stimulating this system can last for up to two hours. Many children with SPD benefit from having these activities embedded into their daily routines. Try one of these activities before a problematic transition or going somewhere new.
Provide Effective Language
When a child can’t communicate his needs, he will often lash out. While your child is regulated, take a minute to develop some language together. Talk about how your body feels when you are happy, overwhelmed, or angry. Kids often have creative and unique insight into this.
For coordinated support, or if your child is non-verbal, check-in with their service providers to see if they are using a specific curriculum such as Zones of Regulation or the Alert Program. Using a consistent program across different settings will help your child generalize their skills.
Notice and redirect
As a parent, you will be your child’s guide to their sensory world. When they exhibit an unwanted behavior, affirmatively notice and acknowledge it, and then redirect it into something more purposeful.
For example, “I noticed that you are chewing your shirt sleeve and that is helping you feel calm. What would you like to chew instead, crunchy granola or a celery stick?” Redirecting can also translate to suggesting hugging a favorite stuffed animal instead of pushing a friend or helping to push in chairs instead of throwing things when they become frustrated doing homework.
Offer a quiet, comfortable space
Kids and adults alike are bombarded with sensory information that competes for our attention throughout any given day. Sometimes, children simply need a break so that they can reset their nervous systems. Have a space to offer that is quiet and doesn’t have any visual clutter (sheets in a corner area work well).
Remember, this is not a space designated for punishment, and provide lots of praise when your child uses this area as a positive coping strategy.
Provide controlled choices
Controlled choices are an effective tool for any parent that can be used to address a variety of issues. You can also use this tool when you’re trying to address sensory processing disorder and aggressive behavior. This involves offering two or more choices that are already parent-approved. Choices reduce overwhelm and give the child a sense of control when the sensory environment around them feels chaotic.
Practice offering controlled choices throughout the day (would you like to read a book or color) and gradually start to offer them for challenging moments (would you like to try wheelbarrow walking or get a bear hug?).
Consult an Occupational Therapist
Occupational therapists use assessments that provide detailed information about each of the different sensory systems (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, movement, and body awareness) and how a child reacts to a different kind of input. Some children are over-responsive to one input type (they withdraw from a very visually stimulating classroom). At the same time, they are under-responsive to another kind of input (they don’t hear verbal directions).
For parents, kids with a mixed sensory profile can feel unpredictable, but an OT can provide information on the nuances of their individual needs. They can also suggest specific activities for your child to keep them at their best during their day. Interested in offering your child extracurricular activities that can soothe their unique sensory system? An occupational therapist will be able to offer suggestions.
Potential Influence From Other Conditions
Children learn everything they know about the world from their senses! When there is dysfunction in processing and integrating sensory information, other developmental issues can result. Sensory processing disorder frequently occurs with other childhood disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and developmental delay. Gifted children also have a higher rate of sensory processing challenges than their peers.
When other diagnoses co-occur with SPD, it can be challenging to determine if the aggression is due to difficulty with sensory processing, behavior, learning, or communication. Aggression is often a combination of more than one factor. However, controlling the sensory environment and using proactive strategies can be helpful regardless of diagnosis.