Sensory-seeking children can be a challenge to parent because their behaviors are often misunderstood. Many people have no clue what a sensory-seeking child is. And, it’s hard to know how to help your child when they’re constantly seeking out sensory input. You may feel like you’re always saying “no” or that you can’t take them anywhere because they’re too disruptive.
Some parents find sensory-seeking behavior frustrating, but the truth is that sensory-seeking kids are just trying to satisfy their innate need for more stimulation. Helping a sensory seeker can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that they are just trying to cope. Keep reading to learn more about sensory seeking behaviors, and how to help a sensory seeking child thrive.
What Is A Sensory Seeker?
A sensory-seeking child is one who craves more sensory stimulation than the typical child. They may be excessively active, constantly moving, and unable to sit still for very long. They may also be very tactile, always needing to touch everything around them. These children are constantly in search of new sensations, and can often be found exploring their environment in creative ways. Sensory-seeking behaviors help them to regulate their environment and feel more comfortable.
Different Sensory Experiences
Picture this: You’re relaxing on the beach with your family. Enjoying the warm rays of the sun on your skin, and the ocean waves soothingly crashing nearby. You feel content and calm with your surroundings. Meanwhile, your sensory-seeking child is not having the same experience. To him, this serene setting does not feel enjoyable at all. His nervous system inhibits all of the sensory stimulation that brings you comfort. Your child may dig into or throw the sand, make loud noises, or run along the beach to get more sensory input.
A child who seeks out sensory input may approach the world differently than their siblings or peers. However, it all comes down to this: They are just doing their best to get their nervous system regulated.
Often, a child taking action to seek out sensory input has that act incorrectly labeled as a ‘behavior,’ and this can trigger negative reactions from family members, peers, and other parents. For instance, a child might seek pressure input and run into their parents or other kids or nearby furniture. It can be easy to assume that the child intentionally pushed over or wanted to hurt someone. However, it is essential to look at the complete picture with sensory seekers.
In this case, the child might have needed an outlet to get input, and he didn’t know a better way to get it. As parents, this gives us the perfect opportunity to support these kids: By teaching them strategies to seek sensory input in an effective and socially appropriate manner.
The Senses: How They React
A child can seek behavior related to any of the well-known senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. However, they can also seek the input of the two lesser-known senses: vestibular (the movement sense) and proprioceptive (the body awareness sense). A child can become dysregulated when they don’t get the visual/movement/other sensory stimulation that their system craves.
The outward behavior that we observe will look differently depending on the input they seek and the child’s ability to manage their reaction. One child may be able to consciously or subconsciously use coping strategies, while another may bite, yell, run away, or flop onto the floor.
It is important to note that while active children are often labeled as ‘sensory seekers,’ they can prefer to avoid certain types of input. For example, a child might crave movement and body input but withdraw from the taste, texture, and smells of many different foods.
How to help A Sensory Seeking Child: Meet Them Halfway
Lean into parenting with awareness of the sensory environment by helping your child get the sensory input their body craves. This can be system-specific. For example:
- A child who seeks taste input by eating non-food items may benefit from sucking on sour candy.
- A child who seeks visual input might feel calm after observing a spinning top or a water and oil drop toy for three minutes.
- A child who reaches out to touch their peer’s clothing and toys may concentrate better when given access to tactile fidgets.
- A child who seeks noise input may benefit from headphones (with volume control), a choice of different styles of music to listen to, and a scheduled opportunity to create noise outside.
- A child who frequently sniffs different items will likely benefit from a scented lotion applied to their inner wrists.
- A child who seeks vestibular input in the classroom (moving, changing sitting positions, wiggling) may be better prepared for math class when they swing for ten minutes first.
- A child who is always jumping, crashing, and bumping into peers can likely benefit from a planned movement break of playing tug-of-war before sitting down for an hour-long class.
The Umbrella ‘Catch All’ System: Proprioception
The proprioceptive (body awareness) system is an excellent tool for overall sensory regulation. Regardless of the type of input they crave, most kids can benefit from the stimulation of this system. Also referred to as ‘heavy work,’ activities that stimulate this system tend to have a calming effect on the body. When these receptors are stimulated, a chemical reaction involving serotonin occurs in the brain. This allows the child to feel organized and calm, despite other concerns in the environment.
Ideas for Heavy Work to Help Kids Feel Calm and Collected
Activities to promote emotional regulation are most effective when provided regularly and before your child’s needs escalate. The following activities require no special equipment and can generally be done quickly and without set-up.
Easy Everyday Activities
- Push against the wall with both hands (try to make the room larger!)
- Chew gum or eat crunch foods like granola, carrots, or apples
- Push a wheelbarrow, rake, dig, or shovel snow
- Vacuum or mop
- Stack up or push in table chairs
- Wipe down tables, walls, or other furniture
- Go on a walk or hike (hilly areas give more proprioceptive input than a flat path)
With a few more specialized tools (the items required here make excellent birthday or holiday gifts!), you can create an exciting activity that engages your child. The tools for the activities listed below are versatile, and your child can try to use them in various ways.
Tools and activities for heavy work
- Pulling their sibling or wood in a wagon
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Playing catch with a soft weighted ball
- Building with hard clay or resistive putty
- Lycra body socks
- Resistive therapy bands
Some children who receive therapy in the school year aren’t eligible for services in the summer or during breaks. Intentionally picking an outside-of-school activity that meets their sensory needs can make a significant difference for these children. Not only will they regulate their nervous systems, but they will have the opportunity to be a part of a peer group when they are at their best.
- Swimming: One of the number one recommendations for sensory seekers, the water pressure gives consistent input to the muscles and joints. As a bonus, swimming is an excellent overall strengthening activity.
- Soccer: Running and kicking are great heavy work for the lower body.
- Rock climbing: Children work against their own body weight in rock climbing. This is great for children who crave a lot of input but may not be the best choice for kids who demonstrate gravitational insecurity (vestibular avoiders).
- Karate: Karate focuses on intentional movement and using the body sense to balance, control, and orient the body.
- Yoga: Yoga provides pressure to the joints and pairs this input with a need for cognitive awareness of where the body is in space. It is easily accessible (check out Cosmic Kids on Youtube) and can be embedded into your routine, especially ahead of tricky transitions like bedtime.
- Gymnastics: The wonderful thing about gymnastics is that it combines heavy work with movement. For kids who seek vestibular input, gymnastics is a win-win.
Everyone has a unique sensory system
The outward behavior is your child’s way of regulating their body
Heavy work is often beneficial for children with various sensory needs
How To Help A Sensory Seeking Child: Is Intervention Necessary?
I’m often asked, “Why don’t OTs see more older children for sensory needs?” This is a great question, and the answer is surprisingly optimistic. As children grow and understand their own needs better, they build compensatory sensory strategies into their day.
It can be an incredible transformation to (often subconsciously) find a way to cope. Just like an adult might make a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning (the taste, smell, and warmth can be arousing and help counter the grogginess from waking up), kids build routines and activities into their day that fit their sensory needs. A child who seeks proprioceptive input may opt to play soccer or football, volunteer to set up equipment for gym class, or gravitate to crunchy snacks or gum.
Therefore, not all sensory seekers will need formal intervention. Those who benefit from treatment will learn the strategies that they need to regulate their sensory systems and apply them outside of therapy. Some children continue with treatment as they age because their sensory needs interfere with their ability to participate in everyday life, or they benefit from continued practice and reinforcement of sensory strategies.
A Note on ASD
While sensory-seeking behavior is more common in children with autism than in the general population, the presence of one does not indicate the other. Sensory seeking and sensory avoiding can be characteristics of an autism spectrum disorder. However, the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder also include deficits in social communication across multiple contexts; restricted, repetitive behavior patterns; onset in early development; and the symptoms must have a significant impact on social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.
When to Get More Help
Mention any sensory concerns to your child’s pediatrician. When sensory-related behaviors interfere with your child’s ability to participate in everyday routines or to relate socially to others, it may be that a sensory processing disorder is at work. Ask for a referral for an occupational therapy evaluation. The evaluation typically consists of a parent interview, questionnaire, and observation of the child. This process will give you individualized information and strategies for your child. This evaluation tends to be thorough and reveals the precise nature of how your child processes and integrates sensory information.
Sensory-seeking children are those that crave more sensory input than their peers. They might be more active, have a higher need for movement and exploration, be louder and more vocal than other children, or have a harder time sitting still in class. They are not being “naughty” or undisciplined. They are just trying to satisfy their innate need for more stimulation. If you are wondering how to help a sensory seeking child, provide plenty of opportunities for stimulation and movement using some of the activities described above.