Happy mother smiling at her son with headphones on as they learn how to manage sensory seeking behaviors.

If you are a parent to a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), then chances are, you are familiar with a wide range of symptoms and behaviors that often go hand in hand with an ASD diagnosis. From restrictive and repetitive behaviors to picky eating and “stimming,” you most likely have a general understanding of what these behaviors are and what they look like in your child. Although the behaviors mentioned are prevalent amongst children with autism, they may affect each child differently. As you may know, children with autism may experience different types of symptoms that vary in severity. With that being said, there are common challenges that most individuals with autism face and one of those are sensory processing issues. The challenges that one faces with sensory processing may cause sensory-seeking behavior, which we will discuss today.

It’s vital that parents, teachers, and caregivers understand what sensory-seeking behaviors are, why children seek them out, and how to help your child manage them.

Sensory Issues & Autism

The brain is constantly taking in information from our surroundings using our senses. Most people don’t even give it a second thought because processing the information is not a problem. However, it may be more difficult for children with sensory issues to process their surroundings. So do all children diagnosed with ASD also have sensory processing issues? Not quite, but more than half do. They may experience hypersensitivity to external stimuli, resulting in sensory avoidance, or hyposensitive to stimuli, resulting in sensory-seeking behaviors.

  • Sensory Avoidance (Hypersensitive)
    Hypersensitive individuals may feel overwhelmed by loud sounds, bright lights, and certain smells or tastes. Because they aren’t able to just “tune it out” if they become overwhelmed, it may result in sensory avoidance. Common sensory avoidant behaviors include:
    • Avoiding crowds
    • Pulling away from physical contact
    • Covering their ears to avoid loud sounds
    • Avoiding certain foods (taste, texture)
    • Avoiding certain clothes (texture)
    • Closing their eyes to avoid bright lights
  • Sensory Seeking (Hyposensitive)
    On the other hand, children with ASD can also experience hyposensitivity to stimuli, resulting in sensory-seeking behaviors. Instead of being overwhelmed by stimuli, they feel underwhelmed. Those who seek sensory stimulation may underreact to stimuli or simply need more of it to function. Children engage in these behaviors to understand input from their environment.
    Common behaviors of sensory “seekers” include:
    • Standing too close to other people
    • Touch objects or people often
    • Make loud noises or seek them out
    • Rocking back and forth
    • Chewing on non-food items (shirts, sleeves, pens, etc.)
    • Repetitive movements (stereotypy) such as hand flapping, finger tapping, toe walking

For children who experience both types of behaviors, it may be because their response to a situation or environment has changed. For example, a child may not exhibit sensory processing issues at home or at school (familiar places), but they may feel overwhelmed in crowded, new, or unfamiliar places. This could result in stimming or seeking out additional input to help calm themselves down.

Managing Sensory Seeking Behaviors in Children

As a parent, the first step to helping your child manage sensory-seeking behaviors is to identify what the behaviors are and what might be causing or triggering them. Once triggers have been identified, there are various ways that parents can help their children not feel over or underwhelmed in situations. Because sensory processing may change depending on the environment, parents should have multiple ways to help their children for different settings.

Here are some tips to consider for helping your child manage their sensory processing behaviors:

  • Environmental accommodations may help to moderate sensory processing issues. Try dimming the lights, using sunglasses, and noise-canceling headphones.
  • Jumping, swinging, or rocking back and forth are comforting for children seeking sensory stimulation or input and should be encouraged by parents.
  • Sensory exercises and even dietary interventions may help to improve these sensory processing issues.

Having conversations with your child about sensory processing behaviors can be very helpful to parents and a great way to communicate with a child. The key to these conversations is to have them when the child is not exhibiting sensory-seeking behavior.

Sensory processing behaviors can be common in children with autism, and although each child may exhibit different behaviors, these behaviors are part of what makes each child so unique. At Simple Spectrum, we know that each day can present a new set of challenges for parents. Although there is not always an instruction manual for raising children, there are plenty of resources to help manage various behaviors.