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Sensory Seeking or Sensory Avoiding?

Sensory Seeking Or Sensory Avoiding?

Sensory Behaviours

Our brains work 24 hours a day. Every day, our brains are taking in information from the world around us. For many of us, we give this little thought, perhaps even taking for granted the inputs and stimuli we receive from the environment.

For others, the world around them offers a constant stream of information, and they are aware of every iota of data that they receive. This can be overwhelming and distressing to some individuals.

The responses that those with sensory processing needs have are often divided into two parts:

  • Sensory Seeking
  • Sensory Avoiding

Sensory Seeking Children (and adults)

Children who are sensory seeking are looking for sensory input. They naturally UNDERACT to sensory input and need greater or stronger sensory experiences to regulate and function. They may move from being hyperactive and charged, to being lethargic and unresponsive. They are under-stimulated by the world around them and may complain of feeling ‘numb’ or feeling ‘nothing’, or when you ask them how they are tell you ‘I don’t know’.  Sensory seeking children can be slow to register sensory information and may be lethargic or fatigue easily or bump into things easily

Children who are sensory seeking therefore use sensory input to stimulate themselves, to feel more alive and in order to be able to interact. When they are overwhelmed, stressed or anxious, and need to regulate, they will use sensory seeking behaviours. Sensory seeking children are often thrill seeking children and are frequently very active. They seek out textures, strong tastes, strong scents and activities with higher levels of adrenaline. They use sensory input to soothe themselves. You might see them:

  • Enjoying jumping, moving and climbing on things
  • Being thrill seeking
  • Having a high pain threshold
  • Putting everything in their mouths
  • struggling to sit still
  • Standing close to others
  • Leaning on others, touching others or being in other people’s personal space
  • Walking heavily
  • Making lots of noise
  • Wanting to smell, taste or touch things
  • For some children, they may shout, make noises or start arguments to gain input
  • Watching as others move around the room.
  • Constantly touching people or objects.
  • Being unable to sit still.
  • Constantly being on the go.
  • Jumping, spinning, or rocking behaviours
  • Seeking out snacks, food or drinks frequently – when out they may have a large appetite
  • Fidgeting with anything they can touch
  • Frequently picking at fingers or skin, skin tracing or picking

Consider how you can add input activities such as:

  • Wall presses/pushes
  • Chair push ups
  • Chair dips
  • Tug of war-pulling
  • Row row your boat game
  • Pushing hands together for ten seconds.
  • Roll over therapy ball on tummy, walk forward, weight bearing on hands.

Sensory Avoiding Children (and adults)

Sensory Avoiding children are removing themselves from sensory input. They will naturally overreact to sensory input, and may become hyperactive or overwhelmed when this happens. They become OVERSTIMULATED by the world around them. This means that they become oversensitive or hypersensitive to sensory inputs as they feel the input more intensely to those around them. Therefore they will avoid them as it makes them feel so uncomfortable. They may struggle with the textures of clothes, shoes, foods or materials. They may be oversensitive to sounds, smells and tastes preferring things that are simple and have less flavour or impact.

Sensory Avoiding children may have HYPERSENSITIVE hearing and be able to detect sounds that other people do not notice. You might see:

  • They may prefer low noise and low lit areas
  • Being a picky eater
  • Being easily frightened
  • Disliking loud noises or sudden movements
  • Being scared by sudden changes in light, including weather
  • Sensitive or heightened hearing
  • Disliking being touched / hugged by people
  • Hating too much fuss or interaction
  • A dislike of materials, clothing tags, labels or types of clothing
  • They might avoid things which have fast movements, such as play equipment, rides or even transport.
  • They may have an aversion to going somewhere new
  • They may avoid being touched
  • Craving quiet
  • Dislike background music
  • They may have a distaste for meeting new people
  • they may become fatigued, especially after going to new places
  • You may see frequent fidgeting
  • They may struggle to focus and complete tasks  which take a long time to complete
  • They may become irritable, especially in a noisy, busy, bright place
  • They may complain of lights hurting their eyes
  • Complaints of muscle tension
  • Complaining of tiredness, and needing significant rest after going to a busy or new places

What happens when we are overloaded?

When a child is overwhelmed by sensory input, we may see them:

  • Have a meltdown
  • Be difficult to console
  • Screaming but moving away from people
  • Not wanting to be touched
  • Running away or hiding

Support & considerations:

  1. Manage sleep schedules – Too little sleep can cause a sensory avoiding children to fall into sensory overwhelm more quickly, consider the demands of the day and whether these can be adjusted where a child has had too little sleep. For a child who is sensory seeking, too little sleep or poor quality sleep may see an escalation of seeking behaviours.
  2. Manage bedrooms – For children who struggle with sensory input consider, are there too many toys in the bedroom that are a visual distraction when settling at bedtime? Is there too much light or noise at nighttime which affects their sleep quality? Do sensory avoiding children have a place that they can go to when they become overwhelmed, where they can feel calm and rested? For example their bedroom, a tent, a hiding space or teepee?
  3. Manage nutrition and hydration – A child who is sensory avoiding who is dehydrated or hungry is more likely to feel overwhelmed, in the same light a child who is sensory seeking may seek more input. Monitoring food and water intake is vital. An avoiding child may become dehydrated or hungry as they are already overwhelmed and feels unable to eat. Offer a straw to drink from, cold or hot drinks, and in the summer consider ice pops or homemade lollies to help regulate.
  4. Manage demands – Too many demands in a day can be challenging to a sensory avoiding child. Busy environments, noisy spaces, too many lights/colours or people to talk to can become overwhelming quickly. You may watch them become distresses, angry or dissociated as they become overwhelmed by the environment. You can look at spoon theory for ideas (see here).
  5. Decompression Time – Plan in time for a sensory avoiding child to decompress and release their stress when out or schedules are heavy going. Quiet spaces (example), regulatory snacks or drinks, weighted blankets, ear defenders or noise cancelling headphones can all be supportive strategies. Where a day has been overwhelming, plan a quiet day the next day to decompress.
  6. Manage boredom – For a child who is sensory seeking, where there are significant periods of potential boredom, consider how you manage their need for sensory input. Resistance bands round chair legs (example), vibrating toys (example) or seats (example) wobble mats or smarties (example), chewable jewellery (example), body socks (example) are all potential options – especially if children need to sit for long periods.
  7. Manage movement – For a child who is sensory seeking, regular opportunities to move are vital. A lack of movement opportunity might look like restless or negative behaviour. In the classroom this might look like lying on friends, irritating others or starting loud interactions. Consider indoor options for home such as trampette, tunnels or fabric tunnels
  8. Manage distractions – A child who is sensory avoiding who is sat in a classroom or restaurant etc in a noisy space, such as next to the door, by loud music or near lots of commotion will retreat more quickly. You may see them covering their ears, hiding or left for too long becoming overwhelmed or entering a meltdown. A child who is sensory seeking, being asked to sit for too long is likely to become distracted and fidgety in this same space. Consider where they are sitting and the input they are having.
  9. How does it smell? – Consider the smells that are around. For a sensory avoiding child, scented candles, cooking smells, perfumes, air fresheners, diffusers or even new detergents can cause challenges. Think about where you are going, will there be potential triggers? For a child who is sensory seeking, smells can be used for sensory input such as roller balls with aromatherapy blends or lavender microwave toys to smell when they need to sit for a long period.

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