Understanding Sensory Impact on Behaviour

Published On: 17 April 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

Our senses are incredibly powerful. They can act as triggers, taking us back to thoughts and feelings associated with previous experiences. These feelings can be positive; happy memories filling us with a sense of nostalgia. Certain smells or sounds may relate to traumatic events and trigger challenging emotions. When this happens, the individual is at risk of spiralling into crisis.

As professionals and carers, the more we understand the function of the behaviour and potential triggers, the more equipped we are to support those in our care. While we can’t eradicate sensory triggers associated with previous trauma, what we can do is create coping strategies and techniques to de-escalate behaviours and support self-regulation.  

Making Connections

At the heart of all Teach Training is the principle of getting to know the child, young person, or adult you support. Demonstrating a genuine interest in the individual and taking the time to make connections builds levels of mutual respect and trust. To overcome the challenging emotions that senses can trigger, the person needs to feel safe and supported.

Considering ways to develop positive relations needs to take into account individual needs and can look very different in our settings. But regardless of where we work, we have to be prepared to be flexible. We can’t force positive relations, but we can grow them organically with time and patience. We can build on what we already know about the individual to make meaningful connections.

Being aware of our impact on senses

The Team Teach Cycle of Influence model describes how feelings and emotions come from previous experiences and drive behavioural responses.

Cycle of Influence

Take the example of a professional wearing strong perfume working with an individual. Unknowingly, the perfume is the same worn by the abuser many years ago. The smell triggers a hugely traumatic experience and intensely challenging emotions. A similar example would be the smell of cigarettes or strong coffee. The individual may respond physically towards the professional, increasing risk for everyone. Without realising it, we can be the trigger behind an escalation of behaviour.

Being mindful about our sensory impact

We need to be mindful of our practice and not make sweeping generalisations about everyone in our care. The sight, taste, feel, smell or sound of something might seem innocuous, but extremely evocative for others. We also can’t assume that everyone likes to be treated in the same way. For example, positive touch, such as hand holding, or a touch of the elbow, might be comforting to one individual but highly stressful for another.

Personal space is also a factor. What is acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to somebody else. Human senses heighten the closer we are to a person. We instinctively become more aware of smells, sights and sounds in case they’re a potential danger to us. Understanding of personal space is key.

Communication and pattern seeking

If the individual is becoming distressed, we can try to unpick the reasons behind it because the behaviour is happening for a reason.

Sensory triggers are not always obvious. Something, for example, like the smell of a certain perfume causing distress, can be hard to spot. This means, when we try to find patterns and understand behaviours, we must also take into account our senses and whether they could be affecting the individual in our care.

It also means that we need to be questioning and curious about behaviour, examining changes that happen when an individual is with different professionals, finding patterns and sharing what we see as a staff team. Sometimes the individual will not know or be able to communicate with us why they are feeling overwhelmed, so we have to play detective and think not only about the physical environment, routines, and relationships but also remember sensory impacts too.