The rising tide of sensory troubles: Explosive behaviours

Written by: Joanna Grace | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a three-part series, inclusion specialist Joanna Grace addresses the sensory challenges that many pupils face. In part two, she considers explosive sensory behaviours – and how not to react

Our senses are our primary source of information about the world, nothing trumps the authority of the information we get from them. Even if our thinking brain tells us that something is not real, our senses take the upper hand.

This is the second in a series of three sensory articles. In article one I evaluated the reality of sensory processing difficulties for our pupils. Suffice to say that for a variety of reasons we now have within our classrooms children who process sensory information in a way different to the norm.

You cannot escape the dinosaurs

Recently I experienced a perfect example of the trumping of sensory experiences over cognition for myself. I am a sensory engagement specialist, everything I do is focused on better understanding and engaging the senses. I was at a party and had the opportunity to try a virtual reality headset. Inside the virtual world dinosaurs were grazing in a wilderness.

I could see them and hear them. I knew they were not real. I also knew that I regularly tell people that the information you get from your senses can’t be trumped, but I thought that I would be able to do it. I figured, rather arrogantly, that I could pit my knowledge about engaging the senses against the experience I was having.

So I focused on the food in my mouth, the feel of my bare feet against the carpet, I listened not to the dinosaurs but to the sounds of my friends around me. I knew and I sensed, that I was not in that world.

And then a dinosaur walked straight towards me and I instantly threw myself to the floor! You cannot beat the information you get from your senses – even if you are a sensory engagement specialist...

For most of us our sensory systems are configured within normal ranges. They make it possible for us to accurately sense and discern the world around us. But as discussed in article one, people with sensory processing difficulties may have some of their senses configured in such a way that they do not accurately match up with reality.

In some individuals this configuration is permanent and constant and for others it fluctuates. We all experience some variation with our perception, e.g. when we’ve first woken up, or when we’re tired or ill, we would not expect to sense as accurately as after our first cup of coffee. Some people have their sensory abilities affected in a more pronounced way – by their sleep, their food intake, their current stress levels and so on. Many factors come into play.

You cannot reason with senses

The important thing to remember is that you cannot reason with the senses, even within your own self. If you are supporting a child who produces explosive behaviours in response to sensory triggers you cannot tell them that they “sensed it wrong”.

Have you ever heard yourself say that a noise “wasn’t that loud” or that a push “wasn’t that hard”? If you find you are consistently accusing a pupil of over-reacting to sensations, question whether or not something may be at play with their processing.

Reaction to sensation tends to be perfectly accurate to what was experienced by the individual. Two people do not necessarily experience the same sensation in the same way. We each live through the lens of our own physiology, our own brains. If a pupil receives a sensory message that tells them they are in danger they will respond as such. Those sensory messages enter the brain at its most basic level and trigger the fight or flight response. There is no filtering of these experiences through the rational mind first.

Fight or flight – in that order

Fight or flight is the organism’s way of protecting itself and ensuring its survival. Survival is our absolute top priority and our animal selves are willing to do anything, including hurt others, in the name of self-preservation. This does not just apply to children from troubled backgrounds, or to children who have sensory difficulties, it applies to all humans. The difference for children from chaotic backgrounds or children with sensory processing difficulties is simply that their brains are likely to be triggered more easily.

When our senses tell us we are in danger it is fight first. The phrase fight or flight is in that order for a reason. At a most basic level if we can kill whatever threatens us, our animal-level understanding believes the threat to have been removed; it is a better way of ensuring our long-term survival than running away. If we flee then we will likely have to face that same threat again another day. It makes survival sense to fight first.

Inside a split second

The decision to fight is taken in a split second and in that split second the following things happen, extraordinarily quickly and without rational thought:

  1. We receive a signal from our senses saying we are in danger.
  2. We associate that signal with something (often with the person nearest to us or the person who is producing the most sensory output – e.g. the one that is loudest or moving fastest). We do not necessarily associate the signal with what produced it.
  3. At an animal level we judge which of us would win in a fight.
  4. If we think we would win, we attack.
  5. If we think we would not win, we look for an escape route.
  6. If there is an escape route we flee.
  7. If there is not an escape route we muster ourselves to attack with everything we have: our animal self is willing to fight to the death.

Animals without emotion

I was supporting a teacher who has a pupil who from time to time bites their peers. Not the sort of little nip to get a reaction: a full-on bite. The teacher observed that afterwards they did not seem remorseful or even particularly emotional. This unemotional response is exactly what I would expect from a sensorially triggered behaviour. To understand the reasons, we need to go back to the primitiveness of the response. We are all animals at a base level. When that message hits our brains that we are in danger and fight or flight is triggered the brain does something extraordinary in order to ensure our chances of survival: it shuts down processing in other areas of the brain in order to maximise our capacity to fight or flee. In so doing it shuts down:

  • Our ability to process language.
  • Our ability to access memories.
  • Our ability to think rationally.
  • Our ability to lay down new memory.
  • Our ability to feel and process emotions.

Let that sink in for a while. It is an extraordinary list. A child who has had their fight or flight response triggered loses the ability to do all of the above. Now look at that list alongside the decisions made in that split section of reaction time and you will begin to see how ineffective standard responses to behaviour are going to be.

Avoid standard responses to behaviour

Standard responses can make sensory triggered behaviour worse. We might shout “Stop!” at a child about to pick up a chair or punch a peer. But what use is this instruction if their language processing has already shut down.

A sound we believe carries instructional information becomes simply a sound and is judged on its auditory merits. “Stop!” is a loud abrupt sound. Loud abrupt sounds in nature indicate aggression. Producing such a sound as a child rattles through those decisions in that split second of reaction time is likely to jump them from step three directly to step seven, because if their senses tell them their potential opponent is about to attack then it no longer matters whether they can escape or not, they have to fight. Shouting stop could well result in the chair be thrown further or the punch being delivered with greater force.

Imagine that a child goes to storm out of the class and we stand across the door to prevent them from leaving. Some children will try to escape a situation before the sensations become too much for them. When we prevent them from getting away we force them to step seven in the split-second decision-making process. We prompt an aggressive response that could have been avoided.

Imagine that we rush towards a child about to enter a fight intending to use ourselves as a shield to protect the recipient of their aggression. That child does not have access to rational thought so they cannot understand our sudden movement as a protective action; someone rushing straight towards you in the animal world is a sign of attack so once again our standard response to behaviour leads to an amplification of the behaviour.

We threaten children with the consequences of their actions, at a time when they have no access to rational thought. We appeal to a child’s emotional literacy pointing out the emotional effect of their behaviour on others, at a time when they cannot feel emotion.

We remind a child that the last time they did this the consequences were bad, at a time when they cannot access memories. We get frustrated that the child does not learn from past events, when their experience of them happened at a time when they were physically incapable of laying down new memories. You can appreciate the problem!

Supporting children with sensory difficulties

  • Prevent: The best way to support a child whose behaviour is triggered by sensory causes is to work out what those causes are and remove them, remembering as you do so that you cannot reason that a cause is insufficient – what their senses tell them is the reality they live in.
  • Flight: If you cannot remove the trigger then you need to think about how you respond. They have only two options: fight or flight. We definitely don’t want the first so we need to work out how to safely facilitate the second. Look at creating sensory flight paths – these are essentially practised routes which children are used to employing to remove themselves from situations of conflict that are clearly perceived by the senses of that child when in a heightened state. Think visually clear pathways that lead to low stimulating environments.
  • Sound: Do not shout or raise your voice. Give instructions calmly and in soothing tones, being aware that the only aspect of your communication that may reach them is the sound you are making. Aim to put into the situation the feeling you want to be there. Don’t meet their anger with anger of your own, instead try to compensate: meet their stress with your uber calm and attempt to level the playing field.
  • Approach: Do not approach them at speed or directly, tricky to do I appreciate but you are aiming for a swift sideways approach keeping your body language as uncombative as possible. Think of those animals on nature programmes that puff themselves out to look more threatening: don’t do that!
  • Touch: Don’t grab or restrain or pull. But do touch – firm reassuring pressure delivered with caring intent has almost magical properties when it comes to dissolving tensions.

Prevention is always better than a cure...

...Especially where the sensory world and behaviours are concerned. In my final article on May 9 I will be looking at low-level niggly sensory behaviours and at how we can deploy sensory stimulation to actively provide for sensory needs and enhance the curriculum.

  • Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and is founder of The Sensory Projects. Visit www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk

Further information

  • The rising tide of sensory troubles: An overview (part 1), Joanna Grace, Headteacher Update, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2CXmrkk
  • Two CPD events – Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary (a course that teaches the development of seven sensory systems) and Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour – are due to take place in 2019 at venues around the UK. For details, visit http://bit.ly/2SVsQBm


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