Sensory seeking or sensory avoiding

A sensory profile can determine if a child is predominantly sensory seeking or sensory avoiding. But how can you tell and what can you do about it? Autistic children commonly have sensory processing disorders, which may be sensory seeking or sensory avoiding.

Types of sensory input

Children might seek or avoid sensory input in a number of ways including

  • visual input, such as bright lights or sparkly objects
  • auditory input, such as loud noises or repetitive sounds
  • tactile input, such as touching other people or the sensations of particular clothing
  • vestibular input, such as rocking, spinning or swinging
  • proprioceptive input, such as big body movement or being rough with others

Sensory seeking input

When seeking sensory input, children might appear to be rough with others in play, chew on objects, fidget in their chair, get up and move around frequently. They might appear to not be listening or not notice when they are being touched. They might display stimming behaviours or be distractable. Children might enjoy the following ways of gaining input.

Proprioceptive input

  • push ups
  • burpees
  • crawling
  • pushing heavy objects around
  • carrying heavy objects around
  • do animal walks
  • hold challenging yoga poses

Seeking vestibular input

  • Jump up and down on a trampoline
  • spin on a wheely chair
  • swing on a swing
  • balance on a balance board
  • roll on a fit ball

Visual input

  • look at bright lights
  • look at colourful and shiny objects

Seeking auditory input

  • listen to music

Tactile input

  • have a tug of war
  • bundle under blankets or cushions or weighted blankets
  • wear compression clothing or tight clothing
  • use a resistance band around feet while sitting on a chair

At home or at school, coping strategies might also include

  • using a balance board for feet under the table
  • using a vibrating or sensory cushion on a chair
  • putting a resistance band around a chair leg for legs to play with
  • using a weighted cushion or blanket on a lap to encourage staying in a chair
  • providing simple, one-step instructions
  • providing visuals or written instructions to go with verbal instructions
  • using a tray or tape on the table to indicate where important things to focus are

Sensory avoiding

Children, at other times, may be sensory avoiding. Too much input can be confusing and overwhelming and difficult to decode and make sense of. They may appear agitated, confused, withdrawn or grumpy when there’s too many sensations.

Avoiding proprioception

  • gentle yoga
  • fine motor task like colouring or threading beads

Vestibular input

  • gentle seated movements like rolling a fit ball back and forth

Avoiding visual input

  • seat away from bright windows and pull blinds down or dim lights and use sunglasses

Tactile input

  • tight clothing underneath, or loose clothing without seams

Avoiding auditory input

  • use noise cancelling headphones or ear defenders
  • give control of noise to child

At home or school, strategies to support children who avoid sensory overload might include:

  • using aids like headphones or sunglasses to decrease the sensory input
  • practicing breathing exercises and other calming strategies when confronted with overwhelming sensory input
  • having gradual desensitisation to environments that can’t be altered or avoided
  • utilising ‘sensory times’ for shopping, movies, museums etc that offer quiet and dim outings

Sensory seeking or sensory avoiding

Regardless of where on the sensory profile a child sits at that particular moment, being aware of the environment is important. Autism is a sensory processing disorder – up to 95% of people with autism report having difficulties with sensory processing. This might be an over-sensitivity to sensory input. This includes things like being sensitive to light, noises, or particular clothing fabrics or tags. It is also common to be under-responsive to sensory input. Autistic people may be slower to respond to stimuli and not realise they have burnt themselves on a stove, or that they are wearing too warm clothes for the weather. Alternatively, these sensory inputs of being too hot, cold, hungry, or in pain may not be interpreted by the brain – the person just feels off but doesn’t know why. Another version is sensory seeking where people may need more input like always needing to be chewing on something.

Paying close attention to your autistic child can help decode what they might be feeling and if you need to alter the environment to support them and their sensory processing.

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