Kids as young as 18 months can express their sensory processing issues with one word: “NO!!” What appears to be a budding attitude issue or even oppositional defiant disorder can be a sensory modulation issue instead.
How could you possibly tell?
Well, if your child has already been diagnosed with sensory sensitivity or sensory modulation problems, you know that these issues won’t just make it harder to wear clothes with seams or touch Play-Doh. These issues affect all aspects of daily living and create emotional regulation and biological over-activation issues as well. Young children are learning how to express their opinions and separate physically and emotionally from their caregivers. Saying “NO!” isn’t unusual for young kids (and a lot of older ones too!). But refusals that make no sense can have a different origin.
So what is the giveaway?
When a child has an almost immediate “NO”, perhaps even before you have finished your sentence, and the reaction is to something you know they have liked or almost certainly would like, you have to suspect that sensory modulation is at play. You usually sense when your child is trying to get your attention or get you activated. This should feel different.
What do I do next?
You also need to respond in a specific way to test your theory that sensory issues are the root of the ‘tude. Your response should be as vocally neutral and emotionally curious as you can manage. “Oh, really….you said no…” is a good template. Whether it is “no” to their fave food, show, toy or an activity. You remove all criticism and encouragement from your voice. You don’t want to fuel the refusal fire; you want to shut it off and see what is left in the embers of “NO”.
Now you need to wait for them to neurologically calm down. Little brains are like old computers. They take a while to reboot. Look at the floor, wipe your hands, etc and wait a minimum of 15 seconds, probably 30, then ask again if they want a cookie, want to go out, want to play, to eat, or whatever. The child who needed the primitive defensive part of their brain to go offline to allow them to use their budding frontal lobes may sweetly ask for what they just refused, or respond to your exactly identical request with a cheery “YES”.
Please try to have compassion for them.
It can seem maddening to do this all day long, and in truth, if you are, you need to learn how to work with an occupational therapist in order to learn powerful sensory treatment strategies that can get your child out of this pattern. But your child isn’t jerking your chain when their behavior fits this pattern. They are more likely a captive of their brain wiring. Don’t let yourself react as if they are intentionally being difficult. That day will come…..13 is just around the corner!