Why is My Child Crashing into Me and Screaming?!?

In my house this weekend, my son was a human (LOUD!) bumper car. Despite all of my refined calming and redirecting techniques, the past few days brought loud screams interspersed with crashing into walls, family members, doors, mirrors, and repeated jumping and falling onto the floor. Ironically, light touches and loud noises from any other source but his own mouth send him into immediate meltdown. How can that be? How can crashing and tight squeezes feel great but a hand on his shoulder make him recoil as if he were being branded with a hot iron?

It can actually be very common for children with Sensory Processing issues to be both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. How confusing and frustrating it can be!

What is sensory seeking?

As I’ve written before, Sensory Integration is the ability of the brain to detect, modulate, discriminate, and integrate the three special sensory systems – tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), and proprioceptive (body awareness).  Although these sensory systems are less familiar than the five senses we all learned about as children, they are critical in order for humans to experience, interpret, and respond to their environment appropriately.

Sensory seeking occurs when a child’s nervous system is under-responsive to the information being received by the brain, so they continually seek intense sensory experiences for an extended time period to compensate. Some typical sensory seeking behaviors include:

  • Hyper-activity
  • Impulsivity
  • Decreased response to pain
  • Crashing and banging into things
  • Craves “tight squeezes” or bear hugs others a lot
  • Screaming
  • Poor body awareness – clumsiness, touching objects or others too hard or too often
  • Staying in a soiled diaper or underpants

What is sensory avoiding?

Children with sensory avoidant behavior commonly have nervous systems that are overly responsive to sensation, which can trigger “fight or flight” responses to sensory stimuli.  They may demonstrate some of these behaviors:

  • Withdrawing from touch
  • Motion sickness, fear of heights
  • Anxious in over-stimulating environments (public places such as malls, playgrounds, etc.)
  • Picky eater – avoidance of certain textured foods, sensitive to food smells or temperatures
  • Doesn’t like being messy and avoids mud, dirt, messy foods
  • Struggles with self-care activities; will only wear certain types of material for clothing and or wear clothing in a particular way; complains about hair brushing, tooth brushing, and hair cutting.

If your child is like mine, we can relate to almost everything in both lists! However, I did have some success alleviating some of the crashing and screaming while we were in public, and I wanted to share what worked with you.

Things that helped

There’s nothing more frightening than standing in line at the grocery store and having your child uncontrollably scream crash into displays, climb on counters, and swing off things that are not meant to be swung from! OY! When this state of sensory seeking is reached, reasoning attempts fly out the window.

While we were out I offered some tight squeezes, head and shoulder pressure, and “contests” (bet you can’t crab walk to that bench and back in 2 minutes!). These did not stop the behaviors entirely but offered some relief to his body and allowed me a few more minutes to finish our errand. It is good to carry a weighted backpack in the car as an emergency sensory-seeking tool to help get you through a situation like that as well!

Once we got home, I was able to isolate him to a quiet room and really pay attention to what his body was craving. We used blanket rolling, full body pressure on a giant yoga ball while he was lying face-down, spinning, and our newest trick: wrapping a rolling pin in large bubble wrap and rolling it over his back! I then gave him some time in his tent with a digital timer. Watching the numbers count down always calms him. It was important that he knew it was not time out for misbehaving, rather a break that would help him.

Other tools I love for sensory avoidance behaviors:

  • Noise-blocking headphones
  • Personal games to keep him focused
  • Favorite healthy snacks
  • Nature sounds on my iPhone
  • Wubbzy music :)
  • An escape plan!

What things help your child cope with sensory input?

Where Am I? Explaining Proprioception and Autism

What is it?

Proprioception , meaning “one’s own” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of parts of the body. Unlike the traditional five senses by which we perceive the outside world, proprioception tells you whether your body is moving or sitting still, as well as where your body parts are located in relation to one another.

Children with Autism frequently show signs of proprioceptive dysfunction. Do these sensory seeking behaviors sound like your child?

  • Loves to crash into walls repeatedly
  • Stomps when walking
  • Kicks the chair or hooks feet around chair when sitting
  • Prefers tight or multiple layers of clothing
  • Chews on fingers, pens, Nintendo DS styluses (I have bought many of these!)
  • Asks for and gives tight squeeze bear hugs
  • Bumps and pushes other children

Does your child also have difficulty with:

  • Regulating pressure when writing – writes too dark or light
  • Breaking toys
  • Using too much force, like slamming doors, squeezing objects, or setting them down forcefully
  • Petting animals too hard

Children with poor spatial orientation often walk with an odd gait, are unusually clumsy, and sometimes even lean to one side. Riding a bicycle is something they simply can’t get the hang of. They do not feel their bodies in relation to space, and as a result do not feel grounded or safe.


According to Dr. Robert Melillo’s Disconnected Kids, a child can function normally without sight or sound, but will struggle immensely with any degree of proprioceptive dysfunction. We resist gravity using our large muscles and joints. In fact, gravity is such a strong stimulus that life cannot survive very long without it. Scientists have tested the effects of the lack of gravity on the brain, concluding that there is a rapid brain cell degeneration that occurs in outer space. NASA noted that some astronauts actually returned from space missions with sensory processing issues similar to children diagnosed with learning disabilities. That’s powerful.

Here’s another amazing test by scientists at the University of California at Berkley: when rats used their muscles and joints in new ways their brain plasticity increased. When sent into space, these same types of rats showed reverse plasticity and marked degeneration of the brain cells.

Help and Hope

So perhaps this illustrates a direct correlation between a sedentary routine (video games, computer use, television) and the continued struggle with proprioceptive dysfunction. Incorporating an Autism Fitness program into your child’s schedule along with specific sensory exercises designed to strengthen brain function can dramatically improve your child’s sensory processing function.

Melillo’s groundbreaking research and results show a disconnection between the left and right sides of the developing brain hemispheres as the underlying cause of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and other PDDs. He has proven that the brain is not hardwired and can change with the right stimulation for the right amount of time, either with exercises done at home or through the Brain Balance Centers he founded.

Why Does My Autistic Child Scream?!

  • Being a “space invader”
  • Staring into lights
  • Self-stimming, such as rocking, spinning, banging head, humming, or screaming
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Picky eater (especially regarding textured foods)

Does your child display any of these “odd” behaviors? What we see as abnormal or sometimes even impish or difficult is usually related to the child’s attempt to calm their body or make sense of their environment through the sensory input they receive.

It has been documented that many children with ASD have difficulty processing sensory input. Normal sensory integration is taking information from your surroundings through your senses and sensory systems, including sight, smell, sound, touch, and spatial awareness (where your body ends and space begins). The information is processed in the brain and then interpreted, organized, and sent back to the body with instructions for an appropriate response.

What happens when it goes wrong?

Imagine being “under assault” by your senses 24 hours a day. In children whose sensory systems are not properly developed, this is what it’s like. Having a sensory processing disorder means you collect the input like anyone else, but when the data enters the brain it is not processed correctly and therefore the brain sends out inappropriate and abnormal responses.

Hyperesponsive is when the brain essentially short circuits from magnified or intense sensations. Even the lightest touch to a child can trigger a “fight or flight” response: the nervous system is perpetually on high alert and perceives nearly every movement or sensation as danger. Because of this, the child may avoid certain foods, clothing, movements, or perform repeated movements in attempt to calm the body.

Conversely, hyporesponsive is when the brain simply doesn’t register and respond to input received. A child may fall down or bang his or her head and not indicate any sensation of pain. In effort to make sense of their world, they may employ all other senses to compensate. A hyporesponsive child may not be able to tell if they are sitting straight in a chair or falling over. Imagine! They will also constantly touch walls, lean back in their chair, or feel countertops and surfaces to try and ground themselves.

What if I relate to both types?

You probably are saying to yourself that your child exhibits behaviors from both categories. Me, too! Most children with a sensory processing disorder are actually hyporesponsive to some input and hypereponsive to other types. For instance, if proprioceptive input is needed by the body they may jump or push things; if for vestibular input they may spin or rock, and for tactile input they might crave deep pressure. They also lack the ability to separate their experience/input from yours, so they will frequently do to others what their bodies are seeking (squeezing the dog, plowing into a parent holding hot coffee…).

Awareness and compassion – the first step

The bottom line is that children with sensory dysfunction cannot learn to function within their daily routine unless their surroundings make sense. To compensate, the brain either turns up or turns down the response, which results in the behaviors described above.

I have found that this kind of awareness can instantly turn my frustration into compassion when dealing with these behaviors. It also helps me help my son by recognizing the responses and asking him the right questions. This encourages him to describe what he is experiencing and teaches him to ask for what his body needs before it spins out of control.