Distraction or Sensory Seeking? by Terri Mauro
Another common difficulty for parents of children with sensory integration disorder is telling the difference between distractibility and sensory-seeking behavior. Is your child really ignoring you, or is he just preoccupied with finding the sensory input he needs to feel safe, comfortable, and alert? Ask yourself these questions:
Does my child’s activity fit his sensory profile?
Does my child know what’s going on?
What’s my child getting out of this?
Is there a pattern here?
What happens when I make my child stop and pay attention?
A child who’s distracted or deliberately not paying attention may be attracted to whatever’s interesting, eye-catching, or close at hand. A child whose lack of attention has its roots in sensory integration will be engaging in specific and familiar activities aimed at jump-starting his system. When your child with proprioceptive or vestibular problems is jumping, swaying, or rolling, you can be pretty sure he’s doing it so he can pay attention, not to avoid doing so.
When your child is distracted or is paying attention to something other than you, the words you say and things you do will pass her right on by. If you ask a question, she’ll be stumped even if it’s within her ability. When your child is engaging in sensory-seeking behaviors to address sensory integration problems, however, you may be surprised to find that she’s been following your words all along. Ask a question, and she may stop her wandering, turn and answer you, then go back to it.
If your child is deliberately doing everything but paying attention to you, or even if he’s just following his attention wherever it wanders, you will likely see some purpose in the activity, some reasonable area of interest taking its turn. If your child is responding to the needs of his sensory system, he may do things that seem nonsensical, like making loud noises, spinning around, or banging his head or body against hard objects.
Another sensory integration problem that may look like distractibility is auditory overload. If your child is overly sensitive to what comes in through her ears, every sound may register the same: the television, the dog’s collar jingling, a sibling’s phone conversation, a video-game soundtrack, and your voice calling her.
If your child is more likely to be distracted by certain things — television, music, books, friends, activities — that may not be a sensory-integration-driven behavior. If she’s more likely to be distracted at certain times — when she’s expected to sit still, when she’s expected to be quiet, when she’s tired or stressed or has had many demands placed on her — it’s more likely that sensory integration problems may be driving the behavior.
When you force a distracted child to pay attention, you get attention. Whether you do it by making yourself the most interesting thing in the room, or making threats, or holding the child’s head in your hands, forcing attention gets attention. But with a sensory-seeking child, forcing attention often gets you just the opposite. Many children with sensory integration problems need to move to pay attention; if you force them to be still, they may get sleepy and listless. Even if you force stillness and quiet, you can’t force attention.