I remember just before my daughter was diagnosed she would be constantly licking things, absurd things such as; rocks, our car, the fridge. I was so puzzled as to why? When she was younger I put it down to being age appropriate and her way of exploring her environment but by age 3 it started to confuse me. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with autism that I learnt that this was in fact a sensory seeking behaviour.
Every individual has a unique sensory profile which involves responding and reacting to sensory stimuli in their own way with their own interpretations and behaviours. It is common for individuals with Autism to experience an overwhelming response to their environment which can lead to sensory seeking behaviours. They experience sensory processing that is Atypical, which essentially means that it is distinctive, can be seen as unusual and not ‘typical’.
Individuals engage in sensory seeking as a way to obtain feedback from their environment. They have an unusual craving or fixation with seeking a certain sensory need or stimulation of some sort to respond to how they are reacting within their environment.
Sensory seeking can be seen as harmful if it is interfering with socialising, learning or involving behaviours or movements that can be dangerous to themselves or those around them. It is then that steps will need to be put in place to intervene and manage the behaviour. Your child’s therapist will be able to assist you with developing a plan. Otherwise sensory seeking can help individuals express themselves and to meet their needs in their environment. It can bring calmness to an otherwise busy and confusing world.
Sensory seeking behaviours that may be seen in three-year old’s
Spinning in circles
Spinning is actually an important sensory and motor skill input and it can help to settle mind and emotions. If a child continually spins in a circular motion it can mean that they are craving that form of stimulation. This form of vestibular input can have a positive effect on self-regulation; however, it is important to monitor the amount of time they spend spinning. As a continuation of spinning without stopping means they are getting the input and awareness of feeling dizzy and this can actually have a negative impact on the sensory system, as it's simply just too much overload.
My daughter has a dual diagnosis of autism and cerebral palsy which makes spinning on her own quite difficult. I could tell it was something she enjoyed and seeked so when she was little we used to pick her up and spin her around in our arms. Now she is older we have a bungee fitness swing that we spin her in to give her the input that she craves..
Chewing on objects or clothing
Chewing can be a calming experience that reduces anxiety and stress. It was only recently my preschool class had their graduation in which they performed songs and dances that they had learnt throughout the year. I had a little boy with Autism, and he was familiar with all aspects of the graduation and showed an interest in participating, however while participating he chewed on his shirt the whole time, to the point of putting a hole in it. This was his way to cope. There was such a hype about the graduation and after weeks of practicing this showed that while he was excited it was also a lot for him to cope with. Chewing was his way to cope and how he responded to his environment through sensory seeking.
Chewing is a form of oral sensory seeking and when a child is experiencing sensory overload chewing can help to calm the nervous system.
Seeking messy play
Sensory seeking is underreacting to sensory input and craving more of it to function. Messy play can be a fun and joyful experience for sensory seekers as it provides a lot of sensory input.
Another example from my preschool days…we had a child that consistently looked for this form of play. The preschool environment is busy with lots of noise and unpredictability going on. This boy was non-verbal so wasn’t able to express when things were too much, but he was able to show it. He would walk around the playground in distress but not wanting to be comforted and then as soon as any type of sensory play came out he immediately transformed. Exploring the texture of touch with messy play through his hands and body gave him great sensory satisfaction and helped him cope with his environment and feel a sense of ease.
Messy play is a wonderful calming activity that supports brain development and provides great sensory relief.
Bumping into people
This type of sensory input can soothe an overloaded sensory system and provide feelings of being more organized in their own bodies and space. Children that crave extra sensory input often have a decreased awareness of vestibular input and can be clumsier. To compensate they may seek out more aggressive forms of sensory input to give more feedback to these systems.
Having this intense need for pressure can interfere with forming appropriate socialisation skills, while also being potentially harmful. It is therefore essential to monitor this particular sensory seeking behaviour and provide environmental accommodations. When sensory seeking behaviours need intervention, it is important to observe when they are engaging in the particular behaviour so that other activities and movements can be taught to replace it. Perhaps when a child first arrives at school the transition is difficult, and this is when they seek out bumping into people. A different sensory strategy that could be put in place is to encourage them to engage in tumbling and rolling on a mat on arrival.
Swinging allows a child to neutralize the disruptions that are caused by their vestibular system, the smooth back and forth motion can be extremely comforting and regulating.
We have a park right near us that has a set of swings. Often on the way back from picking up my girls from school I see the same girl (around early teenage years) on the swing. She has headphones on and seems to spend an extended period of time swinging, and this is almost daily. Now others may not even notice or just assume she has an unusual obsession with swings. But having learnt from my daughter about her own need for the sensory comfort of a swing, it makes sense why she is so often there.
Sensory seeking children are often not able to cope with and process the sensory information they receive throughout the day. As a result, they will seek out sensory inputs to help them regulate and find activities to help meet their sensory needs. It makes me smile seeing this teenage girl on the swing most afternoons (even if she is completely hogging the swing from the younger kids haha) because she has simply found a comforting way to bring calmness and happiness after a day full of sensory overload.
Our brains are constantly taking on information from our senses. For most people this isn’t a problem but for individuals with a sensory profile that is Atypical this can be a real struggle. They will seek out behaviours and actions that give them the satisfactory input in which they require. For young children they can have a range of sensory seeking behaviours that brings them comfort depending on their environment. While it can be equally intriguing and concerning for parents there is often no harm in appropriate sensory seeking behaviours. Providing positive activities and actions can assist them in gaining the sensory relief that they need to function.