Shy/Anxious, and Sensory-Avoidant Children and Overwhelming Social Scenarios

Shy/Anxious/ Sensory kids getting overwhelmed in social settings

By Patience Domowski, LCSW

If you have a shy kid or a kid with sensory issues that is easily overwhelmed in large group settings it can be rough to attend a birthday party, or even a crowded grocery store. You probably find yourselves avoiding large concerts or parades and cringing when taking your child to church or other types of social events. Anxious kids struggle in large social settings and may shut down and refuse to speak, may cry, or even have a full meltdown. Sensory kids may also have a meltdown or tantrum behaviors due to the overdose of noise and light and people. Avoiding these situations may seem best but not always. If the child never learns to cope they will always struggle and it’s not always possible or even prudent to always stay away from large social gatherings. Here are some strategies to try to help your child manage these overwhelming situations.

Some simple strategies to try:

  • If the child is sensitive to sound let them wear headphones, if light- sunglasses. They might look a little different but they will be at least able to attend, and over time they will often adapt and be able to take those things off. Just like when you enter a room that is too cold or hot, often your body will adapt after a few minutes.

  • Practice going into loud and crowded areas for very short time, slowly increasing to help desensitize your child to the sensory stimulation. For example go to the grocery store for a few minutes and buy one thing, or go to church and sit in the back and go to the foyer when its too much, go to parties for just 15 minutes perhaps to start. When your child is doing well, then increase the time. (This may take several attempts and last a few weeks or months).

  • Rehearse ahead of time. Do some role-playing with your child ahead of time such as pretending to be a new person you might meet and have your child practice what they will say if the other person says hello for example or asks them questions. You can switch it up and parent pretends to be the kid and the child gets to be the new person you are meeting.

  • Prep the child for the event in advance (if possible) such as talking through who they will see, what will happen, what is expected etc. If possible look online to see what the place looks like so the child can see it so it doesn't feel so new and scary. If its a birthday party at someone’s house maybe try to do a playdate in advance so the child is comfortable with the home and the child and family before the party (if possible).

  • Try to have your child identify in advance what is bothering him or her and see if you can help them work through it. For example if they are scared no one will play with them at a party, give them some suggestions on how to engage with other children. If they are worried that it will be too loud, suggest they bring headphones, and if they can’t handle it they can take a break outside perhaps. Try to help the child problem-solve the situation themselves, if they are old enough and willing, as they are more likely to use their own suggestions. If they need help, parents can give some suggestions too.

  • If the anxiety is pretty severe and seems unresolvable, seek out help from your child’s pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or a child behavioral therapist. If the issue is more sensory related (sensitive to stimulation like sounds, light, etc) seek out help from an Occupational Therapist (OT) or your child’s special education teacher (they have one).


Sensory or Behavior?



Sensory vs Behavior
By Patience Domowski, LCSW

How do I know if my child’s behavior is sensory-related or a behavioral problem? Parents wonder this all the time. The simple answer is that it's often hard to tell and sometimes the reasons overlap. Often the issues can be both.

Sensory issues are sensitivities related to the senses- see, hear, feel, taste, smell. People can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to senses. Children can be sensory- seeking: they do certain things to get certain sensory stimulation, such as excessively rubbing a soft blanket, or sensory-avoidant: they do things to avoid sensations they cannot handle, such as covering their ears for loud sounds. Some behaviors that are sensory related can also be behaviors for other reasons, which makes this so difficult to figure out. Some children are both sensory seeking and sensory avoidant for different senses.

Some behaviors you might see in a sensory-seeking child: running around and crashing into furniture/items, desires tight hugs and squeezes often, chews/sucks on toys/fingers/etc, bites/scratches/squeezes  people or furniture, likes to feel various items and objects, fabrics, textures. These behaviors are  not to get something they want from another person, like a toy, or attention, but for sensory input into their body.

Some behaviors you might see in a sensory-avoidant child include: won’t touch or eat certain textures- wet or soft items often like pudding or yogurt, screams and covers ears/eyes in certain bright lights or loud noises (may seem normal lighting or sound to a non-sensory person however, but to a sensory kid it’s overwhelming), avoids certain fabrics/clothing.

If a child is screaming or running around, those are not obviously sensory related behaviors, so how do you know the difference? The way to figure it out is to try to figure out the function, or the WHY, of the behavior. Is the child running around because they are trying to get your attention? (Behavioral) Do they seem to be very hyper and struggle to sit still? (Could be Sensory) Is the child screaming to get what they want, get attention, or because other people are doing it? (Behavior) Or are they upset with no clear reason why? (Could be sensory) Would the child do the behavior if no one was in the room with them? One of the simpler ways to figure out if a behavior is for sensory purposes is if the behavior would occur without any other interaction from another person. If the child was alone in a room and would still do that behavior, it is likely sensory- because they are not trying to avoid something they don’t want to do, get attention, or get something from someone else (the other functions of behavior). [For more info on functions of behavior see my other article on this topic].

Many children do sensory-seeking behaviors that are not a major problem as most children like to run in circles, dance around, touch soft items, etc. because it feels good to them. It's only a sensory problem when the behaviors are disrupting the family or school setting, or causing distress or interference in the child’s life. To have your child diagnosed with a sensory disorder please seek an evaluation from an occupational Therapist (OT). OTs are available through Early Intervention (if your child is under age 5), the school system, or private agencies.

If the behavior is for any other reason than sensory-stimulation it's a behavioral issue, not a sensory issue. If a child is throwing a tantrum because they didn't get candy, that’s behavior. If they are melting down because the lights are too bright- that’s sensory. Sometimes it's hard to know why so trying to figure out when the behaviors occur, what set it off, and the environment is very helpful. If your child is verbal, ask them what the problem is if they can verbalize it. Sometimes taking data is helpful to see patterns and figure out what settings the behavior seems to occur in most often.

So what do we do about it? We want to treat the behavior differently based on the function (or WHY) of the behavior. If a child is screaming for attention purposes, we would likely want to ignore them and teach them a better way to get attention. But if the child is screaming to avoid a loud sound, we would want to help them protect their ears- such as providing headphones in noisy environments. If the child doesn't want to wear underwear to be difficult or in control that is much different than a child who is complaining the underwear is itchy. So once we figure out WHY the behavior is occurring, then we come up with a solution.

OTs help kids de-sensitize and meet their sensory needs in more appropriate ways. So a kid who cannot tolerate certain clothing would probably be brushed until they could tolerate it. They would have the child do sensory activities like jumping on a trampoline or crashing into cushions to meet those needs instead of grabbing people or running into walls. Behaviorally the child can be given rewards for making good choices- like using a sensory toy or strategy, such as biting a chew toy instead of mom’s arm.  We want the child to meet their needs in an appropriate way or get them to a point that they don't need that problematic behavior anymore.

Often the behaviors are both sensory and behavioral and they can feed each other, so sometimes a combined approach to treatment is helpful. Many children with ADHD, autism, and anxiety also have sensory issues. However a child can have sensory issues without a mental health diagnosis as well. Try to have your child evaluated by both a behavioral/mental health therapist and an OT to figure out the right diagnosis as that will be very helpful in coming up with a treatment plan.

Because sensory and behavior needs vary so much per child, and figuring out the function can be difficult sometimes, it is important to meet with an experienced professional to help figure out a plan specifically for your child. OTs and Behavioral Specialists/Therapists are the best professionals for this. Some Physical Therapists (PTs) can be helpful as well. Not all child therapists are familiar with sensory issues however, so find someone who knows something about sensory concerns and behavior.

Using a Fidget properly


How to use a fidget toy properly
by, Patience Domowski, LCSW

Fidgets can be really helpful for kids with ADHD, Anxiety, Sensory issues, etc, however they MUST be used properly to help you stay Focused or else they will just distract you further. Here are the Fidget Rules: 

1)      It should be kept in your lap or inside your desk.

2)      You should be looking at the teacher, or focusing on your work on your desk, not looking at the fidget.

If you start to look at the fidget, are thinking about the toy instead of your class, or if the fidget becomes distracting to others around you- it is NOT being used properly and becomes a distracter instead of a helper. If that happens the teacher may take it away for a little while and then give you another chance later.

Autism/Aspergers and teaching social skills at home



If you have a child on the autism spectrum you are probably realizing that parenting this child is extremely different that parenting neurotypical children.

[If you aren't sure if your child is on the autism spectrum have them evaluated by any of the following: their pediatrician, a developmental doctor, a licensed therapist, psychiatrist, Early Intervention evaluation team, child psychologist- either independent or at the child's school.

Signs of autism include at least some of the following symptoms -extreme difficulty with social interaction (including poor eye contact, difficulty understanding other person's tone or intent/meaning, struggles to make friends/initiate conversations, "tuned out", doesn't seek out others for interaction, doesn't understand emotions/how others feel), difficulty with communication (either not talking by age 2, barely talking, difficult to understand, difficulty with conversation skills/pragmatics/turn taking), repetitive behaviors/sensory problems (head banging, flapping, spinning in circles etc), restricted interests (will only play with dinosaurs, lines up cars, etc), other difficult behaviors (defiance, lack of focus, extreme inflexibility, difficulty transitioning between activities, needs a lot of help with basic life skills activities).] 

Children on the Spectrum need visual directions often, and help learning every behavior that most other kids will naturally pick up on without having to be specifically taught. I recommend find a good therapist and get them in a school/classroom that will meet their needs. Because autism is such a spectrum: from the severe nonverbal kids that might also have intellectual disability to the high functioning brilliant Asperger’s kids that your child’s treatment needs to be individualized and work best for their needs.

There is not really a one size fits all treatment for every kid on the spectrum but some basic tips include:

- use visual cues and directions

(social stories, picture schedules, show pictures or gesture/sign language of what you are asking them to do, write down reminders, instead of telling them what to do use picture cards or list the directions)

-don’t give long explanations just short, concise directions

With typical children explaining WHY is really helpful. With kids n the spectrum they often don’t care or don’t understand. Its usually just extra words they are confusing. SO just state what you want them to do in as a short a way as a possible. Example: “Put toys in box”- for autism child. For typical child you might say- “Please clean this room, because we are having guests visit tomorrow and I don’t want them to trip”.

-Teach and encourage your child to interact with peers.

Instead of expecting them to invite friends over to visit, you might need to take the initiative and invite the peers over and even teach/tell your child what they will play with. They might need some adult directives to play together instead of alone.

-teach them how to recognize and manage their own feelings as well as recognize and react to others feelings

Point out how you feel and how they feel so they start to recognize it.

Examples: “Mom is happy because you just gave me a hug! You can tell I’m happy because I’m smiling!” or “Dad is sad because you just kicked your brother. You can tell I’m sad because I’m frowning and shaking my head”.

“You seem so excited about going on vacation! I know you are happy because you are jumping up and down and smiling!” “You seem angry because your brother took your toy. I think you are angry because you have a mad face and are stomping your feet.”

-if they have sensory needs get them the sensory tools they need to help and a good O.T./therapy to help. [See sensory article] 

Fidgets for Focus

Fidgety at school

Here's a tip: if your kid is fidgeting and having trouble staying seated or focused at school... Try a fidget toy like a squishy ball for him to hold. Of course if he throws it or gets out of his seat, take away the toy.

Function of Behavior/ Why is the child doing this behavior?

sibling behavior

Why? That is the question

If you can figure out WHY your child (or student in a classroom, for teachers) is doing what they are doing, you are much closer to figuring out how to solve the problem/intervene.

There are 3 basic functions for behavior (I know, shocking its so few, huh?!)
1. To Obtain/Get Something (or Get Attention)
2. To Escape/Avoid Something
3. For sensory input/stimulation

So look at what happens BEFORE the behavior (called the "Antecedent")
Then Look at what happens AFTER the behavior (called the "Consequence"- doesnt have to be negative or a punishment, in this case).

Here's an example:
Teacher says "Time for work". Child screams and throws himself on the floor. Teacher comes over and asks what's wrong and tries to talk child into doing work.
What do you think the function is?
Well it could be for (1.) Attention (from the teacher, even if the teacher is also going to punish the child), or for (2.) to escape work. Or is it (3.) the child enjoys making loud sounds? Hmm it might be a little bit of everything. (Some behaviors do hit all the above functions, and those are difficult!). So try different responses (whether changing the antecedent or the consequence) to see what happens.
So teacher says "Time for Work", Child screams and hits the floor. Teacher ignores. (Other children need to ignore too). Child then returns to work, or does another behavior (Okay then they want attention).
Teacher says "Time for work"; child screams, teacher sends the child out of the classroom to sit in the hallway, see the principal, etc. Child complies (and maybe even is happy about it). Likely reason is for Escape (child avoided work).

Another thing to consider is- is this behavior due to a skill deficit? For example can the child not do the work he is asked to do? Is it too difficult? Does he/she not understand? Does the child not have the skills (wasnt taught for example) to raise his/her hand and ask for help?
Teaching the replacement behavior (ask for a break or ask for help- for example) would be the best response.

To figure out number 3- the best test is to answer this question: If the child was completely alone, wasn't given any attention, and wasn't being given a demand (direction to follow), would the child do this behavior? If so, its likely for sensory stimulation.

Feeding problems

Eating/Feeding concerns and how to address them (Picky Eaters)

This is for picky eaters, kids with autism, sensory food avoidance, etc...

This is an idea of how to introduce new foods that I have come up with based on observing different interventions teachers, OTs, therapists, parents, etc have used with kids. I cannot and will not guarantee this will work, but its just a suggestion to try.
The basic idea is to offer/present or insist on trying the new food BEFORE they get the food they want. Do not even show them their preferred food when presenting the new food. New foods must be offered SEVERAL times on different occasions for kids to try to see if they will like it/eat it. Don't give up after just one attempt!!  
Also often children will eat more/different foods at school, or with peers/siblings/friends/cousins/etc MORE OFTEN than just with mom/dad at home, so try sending in different food options to school, invite kids over at home to all eat foods, etc. 
When I talk about "New or Different" foods I mean normal kid food that the child refuses, nothing that is usually an acquired taste like some different cultural or "ethnic" foods, sushi for example if family is not Asian, certain vegetables like Asparagus most kids don't prefer for example. Ask/observe other kids to find out what is "normal" kid foods in your area/culture. 

Using a "First/Then" chart card may be helpful for visual learners (most autistic kids).




Feeding Behavior Protocol

Present new food daily, or at least several times/week. Child must do Step (below) first, then receive preferred foods.  Once the Step (that you are on) has been successful for 5 consecutive days, move on to next step in sequence. If unsuccessful, go back to previous successful step. Don’t pressure child or make it feel like a punishment. Make it relaxed. Model eating different foods for child, offer child to eat off parents plates, have peers/siblings model eating the new food as well (if possible). Keep trying new and different foods. Research shows child may need to be presented with new foods 20 times before will eat/try it. Skip Steps below if your child is already past that stage (don’t go backwards if unnecessary)

(** Note - most kids will be at step # 3, 4, or 5 to start. Some kids may need pre step or steps 1-2 to start)

Pre-steps: (Use if child is avoidant of touching certain textures like pudding for example)

– Have child first touch food with one finger (or touch food with a plastic glove on, or in a plastic bag)

-Have child put hands in food, then wash off /remove quickly

-Move to step 1:


  • Step 1: Touch food to mouth
  • Step 2: Lick food
  • Step 3: Take a tiny bite “mouse bite”
  • Step 4: Take a larger bite “elephant bite”
  • Step 5: Eat new food (1)
  • Step 6: Eat full serving of new food
  • Step 7: Try another new food!! Repeat Steps 1-7 as needed


girl sensory paint hands

Some children have Sensory issues which can be causing behavior. To find out- have them evaluated by an Occupational Therapist (OT) at school or outpatient. Sensory behavior may include avoiding certain textures- food, touch, clothes; or sensory seeking like crashing into walls, craving tight hugs, jumping excessively, etc. Children with autism and ADHD often have sensory issues. Some children without any mental health issues have sensory concerns too. 

A "sensory diet" is helpful for kids with sensory needs. This doesn't mean food but rather activities. Consult with your child's OT, PT, special education teacher, etc to make one. Here are some links with more information.