NESCA is currently booking for in-person Real-life Skills and Executive Function Coaching in the Newton, MA office! Our experienced occupational therapists work alongside individuals to achieve their personalized goals, which often address functional life skills that allow them to thrive in their homes, schools, and communities. For those not local to Newton, MA, remote services are also offered. Click here for more information. To inquire about our coaching services, complete our Intake Form.

Is It Sensory? Or Is It Behavior?

By: Julie Robinson, OT
Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

As parents or other caregivers of children with special needs, we can often find ourselves confused between what is a sensory response and what is behavior. Although this is often a complex question, and one without a straightforward answer, there are some tools of the trade that OTs use to help us determine just what is going on with these children. What makes this so complex is that each child is an individual, with their own unique ways of responding to sensory stimuli, to social interactions, and when out in varied settings in their community or with family. Children may also present differently from minute to minute or day to day, depending on sleep, hunger, and fluctuations in mood. But we can often look closely for patterns that may help to guide us in finding the answers.

When working with a child who seems to be in a meltdown, one of the best things you can do is take a quick scan of the environment. Is there a loud or distracting sound in the background? Did someone touch the child unexpectedly? Is the overall environment too busy and overstimulating, such as at party or a restaurant? Sometimes just naming or removing the stimuli, if possible, is enough to help get things back under control. If you know a triggering situation might arise that provokes a meltdown, see if you can give the child a warning and a plan of where to go for comfort. “We will be having a fire drill in 10 minutes, so when it happens you can hold _____’s hand, or we can get you some headphones to cover your ears to make you more comfortable” is one example. Find something soothing from a sensory perspective to help the child settle: a quiet corner with books, some tactile play or fidgets, calming music, a tight squeeze ( but only if tolerated and given permission to do so ). If you know you are entering a highly stimulating environment, it may be best to go in for short periods, with frequent breaks built in for your child every 10 minutes or so to take a walk, use the bathroom, or get a drink.

If you do not see something sensory in your environment creating the discomfort or the meltdown, then behavior and emotions are more likely at play. You child may feel confused about a social interaction, about expectations, or what may be coming next in a transition. Your child may feel a lack of confidence or anxiety in a situation, that although may be seemingly simple and straight forward to you, may not to him or to her. An academic task may feel misunderstood, and not knowing how to start can result in a meltdown for many of our children.

When you see that the child you are caring for is beginning to ramp up, that is the best time to intervene. Once a meltdown has begun, language processing will be limited, and the child may not be reachable for a period of time in order to settle down. The best thing you can do in those moments, is to help the child to stop. I often use a stop sign to hold up in my therapy sessions, that cues the child to take a quick break from interacting with me when I see things starting to spin out of control. I limit my language, provide a calming sensory activity, then we can talk about the upset once I have the child back in my court.

Here are some things to think about and questions you might ask yourself to help guide your interactions and expectations when you, as the adult, are confused about whether this is sensory or behavior:

  1. What are the undesirable behaviors that my child observes when he or she is upset or uncomfortable? Are they different when there is sensory discomfort, in comparison to when he or she is upset with a person or a demand? Notice quality of voice, bodily tension, inability to stay still or focused, aggression, flight or an attempt to get away, shutdown or inability to interact. You may start to see patterns in behavior when you look at them in relation to a sensory event or something that is more emotionally-laden.
  2. What occurred just before this behavior appeared? Was there a sensory distraction or discomfort or was he or she upset with a person or a demand?
  3. How did the child behave during this episode?
  4. How did adults or peers interact with my child during the episode? Did it calm the child, or make him or her more agitated?
  5. List sensations that may have triggered a meltdown: tactile, auditory, visual, smell, taste, movement. Were they loud, distracting, uncomfortable? Was the child in a space that may have been too small or too large? Was the child able to get away from the uncomfortable stimuli, or did he or she feel stuck in the moment?

It will be beneficial for team members to share information and write these things down, perhaps in a format of a journal, so that the team can work together to uncover the patterns, find strategies that are successful, and provide consistency across the board. We all know consistency for these children is one of the most effective tools for learning, and although it may take some extra work up front for caregivers, the pay off on the other side is often so rewarding that it is worth the effort.

If you would like to explore this topic further with NESCA OT Julie Robinson, join us for a free webinar on this topic on September 13, 2021 at 10:30 am ET. Register in advance for this webinar at:


About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services or other clinical therapies, please fill out our online Intake Form, email or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.