Friday, October 15, 2010

Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders

Hartley Steiner

For the purpose of this post, I am going to list sensory seeking and sensory avoidant behaviors, to paint a more accurate picture of what sensory-based behaviors look like. You can consider these 'symptoms' or a 'checklist' but my real goal in posting them is to help parents and caregivers recognize the sensory challenges in the children in their life.  In addition, I hope to paint a more specific picture of the kinds of behaviors Sensory Seekers exhibit.

Sensory Seekers

I completely ignored the first person who suggested Gabriel had Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Technically, I even made fun of her. How stupid was she to suggest my son had sensory issues? My kid wasn’t one of those who covered his ears at every little noise, nope, not my kid. My kid was fine with loud noises, loved water, mud, hot salsa and was not afraid of anything -- OK, besides bees. I had a child who would climb to the tippity top of a play structure -- and stand on top of it. No, my kid was not at all adverse to sensory stimuli – as a matter of fact, he couldn’t get enough. I didn’t understand how that could be a sensory processing problem.

When I finally gave in to our psychologist, an embarassing one year later, and read the book The Out of Sync Child, it became much clearer that my son did indeed have Sensory Processing Disorder and was continually seeking input. I had no idea that SPD included sensory seekers -- I thought that all children with sensory issues were avoiders. I couldn't have been more wrong. But, I think many people still share my initial misconception. It can be easier to understand kids who avoid input -- too much noise, too much touch, too much texture -- than to understand kids who can’t get enough. 

Avoiders tend to get labeled as 'fussy,' 'sensitive,' 'picky,' or 'spoiled;' Seekers are often considered 'behavior problems,' 'hyperactive,' 'difficult,' 'stubborn,' 'coddled.' Many of us parents have been blamed, told our kids need more discipline, or that they are "In need of a good spanking." Here are some things that you might see a sensory seeker doing:
  • Spinning
  • Climbing too high
  • Climbing everything
  • Crashing into things (people, furniture, walls)
  • Mouthing/licking inedible things (furniture, toys, body)
  • Chewing inedible things (clothing)
  • Eating excessively
  • Constantly wrestling with siblings
  • Touching everything
  • Playing with food
  • Eating messily
  • Overstuffing their mouth
  • Eating spicy/hot foods
  • Under-responding to pain (‘shakes it off’ quickly)
  • Dumping out toy bins just to look at everything
  • Engaging in excessive sensory play (mud, water, soap, etc.)
  • Jumping
  • Pushing
  • Running barefoot
  • Chewing on their toothbrush
  • Not sitting still at their desk
  • Falling out of their chair for no apparent reason
  • Seeking loud noises (turns up TV, battery toys against ears, vacuum.)
  • Failing to monitor their own volume (you constantly say, “Stop yelling!”)
  • Smelling everything, even bad smells
This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a starting point.

Sensory Avoiders 

Sensory Avoiders are probably what comes to mind when people think of a child with sensory issues: The child with his hands over his ears. But, there is more to it than that.  These are children can have sensory challenges with even the basics in life: eating, dressing, bathing.   The sensations from day-to-day living can interrupt an Avoider child's functioning, and make it nearly impossible for them to learn or socialize appropriately.  Here are some things you might see an Avoider doing:
  • Picky eater (prefers one texture or basic flavors)
  • Covers ears at noise (hates vacuum, blender, hand dryers)
  • Avoids touch (not a ‘huggy’ or ‘cuddly’ kid)
  • Hates tags/seams in clothing
  • Won’t wear shoes (or prefers only one shoe type)
  • Avoids messy activities (mud, sand)
  • Avoids art activities like painting or playdoh
  • Walks on toes
  • Doesn’t engage in playground activities (climbing, swinging, etc)
  • Hates a wet/dirty diaper/underwear
  • Dislikes having people too close
  • Refuses to take a bath/shower or play in the sprinkler
  • Hates water on their face
  • Hates/Refuse to brush their teeth
  • Complains about smells
  • Complain that normal light is too bright (wantings to wear sunglasses)
  • Over-responsive to pain (everything hurts!)
  • Avoids/refuses stickers/fake tattoos
Although most kids tend to fall primarily on one side or the other, many kids have experiences in both avoiding and seeking. And there are more examples of both Avoider and Seeker behaviors on the Red Flags for SPD checklist (http://www.spdfoundation.net/redflags.html). If your child is not diagnosed with SPD, but has many of these behaviors, please seek a good Occupational Therapist trained in Sensory Integration techniques to consult with your family.

Sensory issues are on a continuum: Some kids avoid nearly all sensory stimuli, and some kids seek excessive amounts of sensory stimuli. And many kids do a combination of both, depending on where their ‘arousal’ level -- is like a constant balancing act to get the input just right. My son Gabriel, is primarily a Seeker, yet often gets ‘over stimulated’ and requires some down time to regroup -- to be ‘calm and organized.’

Gabriel will climb anything, eat anything (with hot sauce added), loves deep pressure input, and can spin and spin forever. But, at the end of a school day, he becomes an Avoider -- he is already exhausted and melts down at the littlest sound from his brothers -- even a normal speaking voice can be a problem. His body just can’t handle more input, and my usually ‘sensory seeking’ kid is yelling at his brothers to “SHUT  UP!” while pressing hands against his ears so hard you would think we were blaring an air horn at him.

The solution for Gabriel is simple: he needs less input to bring himself back to neutral. But the sensory challenges for each child are different, hence the solution for each child is different.  What is constant is the balancing act of trying to control the amount, intensity, and duration of sensory input coming into their body.

This is no easy task for a child (or a parent).

Understanding the significant differences between “Seekers” and “Avoiders” can help not just parents who are trying to raise a child with sensory issues, but all caregivers – teachers, coaches, babysitters and daycare providers. Increased understanding of sensory seeking and avoiding behaviors allows everyone to better understand our kids.