This child is functioning at a very primitive level. What is driving his behavior is extreme sensory defensiveness. Most of what comes into his personal space is interpreted by his nervous system as a threat. He is looking for predators! This is a child who will require a lot of sensory work to calm down the reptilian part of his brain, and convince it to stop alerting him that everything that crosses his path is threatening and dangerous.
Why is a child's nervous system wired like that?
One aspect of a child's functioning that is absolutely critical, but that often gets overlooked when a child is being evaluated, is the child's ability to breathe. The reason that this is so important is that breathing has a profound influence on not only our physical health, but our emotional and intellectual health as well. Just as our breathing is affected by our inner state, our inner state can be affected by our breathing.
Many of the children I treat, including this boy, are rapid, shallow breathers. When we are frightened, anxious or stressed, chemicals flood our systems and we begin to breathe rapidly, using only the very top portions of our lungs. This puts us quickly into a heightened awareness and a fight or flight state, as opposed to the slow, deep, relaxed, full breathing of someone who is sound asleep.
Even when we are not under attack, if our bodies are preventing us from breathing fully, we can be living in a chronic low level fight or flight response. This predisposes us to scanning the environs for predators, alerting to everything and filtering out nothing, and prevents us from being able to focus on much outside of ourselves. It doesn't put us in a good place for learning, socializing, or exploring, and makes it challenging to regulate our alertness/arousal levels.
Poor breathing is a symptom of a variety of underlying causes. For instance, the child could be chronically congested, due to allergies or sinus problems. He could be living with asthma. In the children I treat, often it is because their trunk tone is low, their posture is poor, and so the diaphragm, and the muscles that serve to expand the ribs, are weak. They often have breathing issues that are related to birth trauma. If the baby does not take in its first full, deep breath directly after birth, such as in a C-section birth, it can negatively affect the baby's ability to breathe.
If you have an anxious, rapid, shallow breather on your hands, the thing to do is NOT to say, "Take a deep breath!" The child already has enough trouble breathing in without someone interfering further! The best way to help a child who breathes like this is to give him lots of toys that encourage him to purse his lips and exhale forcefully. I use siren whistles, razzers, blow darts, kazoos, bubbles, party horns, and anything else I can find. You can also make great impromptu blow toys out of drinking straws and light objects such as cotton or ping-pong balls, wadded up paper, beans, and tiddly winks. You can stick a bunch of birthday candles into modeling clay or salt, light them, and have the child blow them out.
The reason this works better is because a deep, sustained, forceful exhale will automatically cause the next inhale to be fuller and deeper.
Try this: Breathe in as big as you can. What was that like?
Now: Breathe out until your lungs are really empty, then notice the next breath as it rushes in.
What was that like?
The inhale after the forced exhale was much more relaxed, open, and expansive. Our bodies know how to inhale beautifully. Sometimes it's just a matter of clearing the path so that it can happen.
Try playing with bubbles, whistles, and blow toys for a few minutes every day with an anxious, restless child and see if it doesn't help him to be much, much calmer and happier in his body.