Saturday 6 January 2018

Why do Children need to engage in Sensory Seeking?

Something that O and L have always done on a very regular basis is actively seek out sensory input. 

From a very young age, and I'm talking as soon as L figured that he could start moving like a commando across the floor, he was constantly on the go. Even now L is constantly bouncing, spinning, wriggling, running, flapping, jumping and so on. He rarely stops.

O also seeks out sensory input but not as much as L does. O more seeks out sensory input when she needs to concentrate on a task or when she is anxious. 

So why do children need to engage in sensory seeking activities?

It all has to do with the proprioceptive system. Put very simply, our sense of proprioception tells us where our body parts are in relation to each other as well as giving us information on how much force to exert when we are hugging someone or when we are kicking a soccer ball. The proprioceptive system may be under responsive, over responsive or a combination of both.

If an individuals proprioceptive system is over responsive, they will actively avoid sensory input such as bright lights, loud noises, certain textures, busy places and so on.

If an individual has an under responsive proprioceptive system they will actively seek out sensory input so that they are able to function. Having an under responsive system in effect means that an individual is not able to process the normal sensations that we all receive throughout the day that would normally stimulate the sensory system. And as such they will seek out the sensory input more often than others.

Most individuals are a combination or both. Both O and L detest with a passion loud noises to the point that they both need to wear block out ear protectors when the noise becomes to loud. Both O and L will avoid certain textures and tastes of food - it isn't that they are being fussy, the texture or taste makes them feel physically ill or makes their skin crawl. And yet the both crave constant movement.

Sensory seeking can assist a child to focus in class or to concentrate on the task at hand.

O has a sensory chair band that goes around the front two legs of her school chair when she is seated in class. She will "play" with the band with her feet or bounce her feet on the band throughout the day - this assists her concentrate in class. When we are doing homework in the evenings, she will stand on a twist board and constantly move around. When she is doing this, she will always get all of her homework correct. As O has told us "being able to move my body means that my brain can stop moving and I can concentrate on my homework!" On a side note, I love how articulate O is when describing how her brain works!

Sensory seeking can assist a child to calm themselves when they are in an anxious state.

O has a small sensory tool kit that she keeps in her desk at school so that when she feels as though she is becoming anxious, she can fiddle with one of her sensory tools. The hands can be great tools for regulating one's emotional state. This is why fidget tools, not toys, when used correctly are incredibly useful. 

In some cases, the more sensory input that they receive, the more alert that they will become.

Both O and L require regular sensory breaks throughout the school day and also when we are at home or on family outings. The sensory breaks can be as simple as spinning around outside, going for a run, hopping into their sensory body sock, getting a tight cuddle. The sensory breaks assist them to escape from the sensory overload that they may be in and to get back on track!

All of the strategies that we have in place that assist O and L to gain the appropriate amount of sensory input that they both need, is part of their sensory diet

Another way in which individuals on the spectrum are able to gain sensory input is through stimming. The word stim is short of self-stimulation and it is classed as repetitive behaviour in the diagnostic criteria under the DSM-5. Everyone has at some stage in their life done a little stimming - it could have been tapping your foot while seated a desk, chewing on a pencil during examinations, fiddling with a pencil or ruler, tapping your fingers over and over on your work desk. In most cases, a stim will come and go when you need it. In individuals with autism, the stim is there for good. Just as babies may suck their thumbs to relax themselves, some stims serve the purpose of soothing or comforting an individual on the spectrum, hence short for self-stimulation.

Both O and L have various stims based on their emotional state. They don't stim for the sake of it, they stim because they need to.

O and L stim to help themselves calm down when they are anxious. They stim to express different emotions. Stimming assists O to focus on one thing and gets her mind away from the sensory overload going on around her.

So how can YOU help your child to gain sensory input?
  • The very first thing that you need to do is work out exactly what your child likes to experience and why. Ask them why they like to do particular body movements. Ask them what does it feel like when they're bouncing or spinning and so on, you'd be surprised at what they might be able to tell you.
  • Try to figure out the impact that the sensory seeking activity has on your child. What can you observe about your child when they are engaging in a sensory seeking activity? I know just from watching L, that spinning on the spot or spinning while seated on an office chair helps him to calm. When you think too hard about it, it doesn't make a lot of sense but in some cases being overly active is actually calming for a child.
  • Make a note of what works and why it works. This is useful so that you can pass the information onto teachers, carers, family members so that they too are able to assist your child when they need to gain some sensory input.
  • Make sure that your child knows if there are any limits in place when they need to sensory seek. L loves playing rough and tumble, the down side is that he simply isn't aware of when he becomes too rough. Again this has to do with the fact that he is not yet aware of how much he can and can't use when engaging in rough and tumble play. One of the limits that we have set is that he is only able to play rough and tumble with Daddy Superhero!
  • Put together a sensory kit for your child to take to school each day. This way they will have items that they are familiar with which will help them when they are needing to gain sensory input.
  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to engage in sensory seeking activities - you will notice the benefits for your child!

Now before I finish this post off, there is one final vital piece of information that you NEED to know.

Sensory seeking and stimming is NOT a bad thing. However if the individual is physically hurting themselves, otherwise known as self harming, or is in danger of hurting others or if the stim is an inappropriate behaviour, then of course the individual should be redirected. But if you do find that you need to remove an inappropriate or dangerous behaviour, you do need to replace it with a preferable behaviour.

Preventing an individual from gaining sensory input when they need it will only make the situation worse. They are sensory seeking for a reason and they may very quickly enter in meltdown mode.

Stopping an individual from sensory seeking or stimming simply because you don't like it or you don't think that they need to engage in the activity, can be detrimental to their emotional and mental well being. By telling them to stop stimming you are in effect telling them that that aspect of their autism is a bad thing. All you will succeed in doing is help them to withdraw into themselves and no one wants this to occur.

So the next time you find yourself becoming frustrated at the constant movement of your child or someone close to you, take a closer look as to why they might be engaging in that behaviour. What can you do instead to assist your child?


  1. Great content! I have done several sensory activities with my son and it surprised me that he is not into it at all. He literally doesn't like to get his fingers dirty. He also complains when he picks up his peanut butter +jelly sandwich and it gets on his fingers. Wondering if this is just a stage?

  2. This post was full of important information I never knew too much about. I walk away with a wealth of knowledge ready to share.Thanks for sharing.

  3. I think it's great that you have found a great way for your child to explore. I used a couple bins and my kids liked them but I think it's more of the surprise factor versus the tactile.

  4. This is a great post with insightful information for parents. With my 3rd I really learned how important sensory is important to children and their learning

  5. This is so great! I'm a teacher, so I was already aware of some of these sensory stimulation ideas, especially using fidget tools and the bands and things like that, but you just gave a great idea for my kiddos who are constantly tapping their pencils and annoying everyone else in class. I'm going to see if I can trade them the pencil tapping for a more fun sensory tool instead. :) Thanks!


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