How Our Needs Affect Us

September 13, 2019

** the following in an excerpt from my book “Taming Your Child’s Outbursts with the Sensory Diet” released on September 17th**

It’s important to take a deep dive into psychology in order to understand a bit more about the underlying factors of your child’s behaviors. You may (or may not) have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs years ago, but I find it very helpful in understanding how this basic tenet of psychology relates to your child’s needs and can be a helpful tool for understanding a bit more about what innately drives us as humans.

The Hierarchy of Needs is a theory — visualized in pyramid shape — that highlights how larger, overarching human needs are required to be met in order to fulfill the more advanced needs. Sitting at the bottom of the pyramid are physiological basic needs; all the things humans need for basic survival, such as breathing, food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep. The ultimate goal — the tippy-top of the pyramid — is self-actualization. This is when you feel you are achieving your full potential in life, and while this is an ultimate goal for most, children with special needs require more assistance to allow their basic physiological needs to be met before they can rise to the higher levels. Maslow said that when a person is “dominated by the physiological needs, all other needs may become simply non-existent or be pushed into the background.”

The Bottom of the Pyramid

This part of the pyramid addresses physiological needs, i.e. those that help living things function. These are daily needs that must be fulfilled in order for all other needs to be achieved. Two of the most important needs in this category when it comes to children are food and sleep.

When initially thinking about food, it is the concept of nourishment, but assessing your children’s daily intake of nutritional foods to aid in their development and growth can have a large impact on their behavior. Digestion time varies based on the food consumed, with meat and dairy taking longest to process. Longer processing time leads to a more steady absorption rate and consistent source of energy. Sugary and heavily processed foods are digested the quickest, in only a few hours, and also provide little in terms of nutrients and vitamins, which leaves your child feeling hungry quicker. These foods that are quick to digest do not fill you up, making it easier to over eat. This is why it’s important to consider what foods are nourishing to your child’s body for meeting their physiological needs throughout the day.

With autism comes a special relationship to food and eating. All individuals have food they prefer and dislike, but individuals with autism often take their preferences beyond just flavor. They often display an increased sensitivity to the color, smell, and texture of foods. Research has shown children with autism strongly prefer processed foods and simple carbohydrates, due to their aversion to taste and textures, limiting the inclusion of fruits and vegetables for a balanced diet. Simple carbohydrates can be identified as food with refined starches and limited nutritional value, like white breads, cookies, and sugary drinks.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is another major factor I focus on with children I work with who have increased behaviors throughout the day, specifically in the areas of quality, quantity, and bedtime routine. Sleep provides a necessary foundation in optimal performance and engagement throughout the day and is a very important daily occupation. Not only do we see impaired behavior and decreased overall academic performance in children and adolescents who don’t sleep enough, but we can also see an increase in stress and anxiety in those lacking restorative sleep. In my experience, many children with autism I have worked with have difficulties with sleeping in general, be it sleeping through the night or in their own beds, so it is not hard to conclude the lack of restorative sleep occurring here.

Restorative sleep is an evaluation on quality of sleep because not all sleep is restorative. You have heard about the various sleep cycles the body goes through during the night and may have even tried out a sleep tracker on yourself to monitor you sleep times and possibly night cycles, but sleep goes far beyond these factors to perform rejuvenating functions in the body like muscle growth and tissue repair. Sleep also aids in memory functions of learning and storage when the body goes into deep sleep and REM stages combined to classify restorative sleep. It has always been known that sleep is important, but for children, it is a crucial component in the development and needs.

The beginning step to looking into your child’s sleep is observing this quality of their sleep. In the world of occupational therapy, assessing the sleeping environment and looking into bedtime routines, patterns, and habits is important for promoting better sleep. The next section will discuss the various sensory systems that the body is constantly processing, and you will begin to think about which of these systems are impacted with every part of the bedtime routine; sensations like wearing loose or tight pajamas and having lightweight or weighted blankets on the bed. These factors are just a part of sensory processing that affects sleep, yet there are many other factors to look into that encompass the entire occupation of sleep.

Quantity is another factor to look into. Different ages require different amounts of sleep, and bedtimes should be adjusted based on age as well. The following chart from the National Sleep Foundation illustrates that the younger the child is, the more sleep they require (no matter how early or energetically they seem to wake up!). Have you ever noticed your child getting very worked up around 6-7 p.m., possibly your dinnertime? You can probably attribute this to the schedule set by the other members of your family as their bedtime is later, but at this time, your child’s body may be telling them it is really when they should be going to sleep and they are fighting it. This also causes them to get a kind of “second-wind” from fighting their body to stay awake and active, and consequently they will not be ready for a bedtime routine a few hours later.

The following link shows sleep duration recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, and while at first may seem a bit unrealistic with other life factors, such as nighttime sports and activities or family events, it is a fact that children and adolescents need more sleep than adults for their overall mental and physical development.

Even teenagers require more sleep than adults, despite what you may experience in your home with them staying up all hours of the night. Research documents a significant delay in the nocturnal melatonin production that occurs after puberty, resulting in why teenagers cannot seem to fall asleep as early or easily as they used to! Take this into consideration if trying to adjust your older kid to a sleeping routine.

Moving Up the Pyramid to Feeling Safe

Just above these needs is safety, still considered a basic need. While most adults want safety and security in our jobs and families, safety for children is more physical — not physical in the sense that they are in immediate harm, but with regards to sensory processing. If all the sensory information their systems are taking in is too much, they may act out because they physically do not feel safe in their own bodies and cannot control the sensory input their bodies are receiving.

As Maslow puts it, bombarding the “child with new, unfamiliar, strange, unmanageable stimuli or situations will too frequently elicit the danger or terror reaction.” In other words, an overabundance of sensory stimuli can lead to the child not feeling safe in their own body and seeing all that input as dangerous. This relates to what we discussed about the sympathetic nervous system in the last chapter. The nervous system and brain are responding to perceived threats and emergencies, which causes the body to become over-stressed. In this state, there are negative effects on the overall mood and behavior of the child, preventing them from reaching any of the higher stages of love, belonging, and self-esteem. Of course, kids (and adults) are always looking for these higher needs, but they’re difficult to reach if their baseline needs aren’t being met.

About Alli

Alli Carbone, MS, OTR/L, CCYT, is a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in using yoga for sensory processing skills and education for the whole family.