Seekers and Avoiders

I had such a huge response to my post, “What is Sensory Processing Disorder?” that I wanted to talk a little bit more about how it presents itself.

I want to start by talking about Sensory Modulation Disorder – or in basic terms: Sensory Avoiders and Sensory Seekers (for a full definition, click here).

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 to that, I hope to paint a bigger picture of specifically of the kinds of behaviors Sensory Seekers have, as they seem to be the least understood.

Let’s start with Sensory Seekers.

The first person to suggest to me that Gabriel had Sensory Processing Disorder I completely ignored. 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 that would climb to the tippity top of the playground – –and stand on top of that. 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 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 that – I thought that all children with sensory issues were avoiders. I couldn’t have been more wrong. But, I think many people still share this misconception.  It is somehow easier to understand kids that avoid input – too much noise, too much touch, too much texture – but for some reason it is much harder to understand kids that can’t get enough.

Where Avoiders tend to get labeled as ‘fussy’, ‘sensitive’, ‘picky’ or ‘spoiled’, it is the Seekers that are often considered ‘behavior problems’, ‘hyperactive’, ‘difficult’, ‘stubborn’, ‘coddled’, or what many of us parents have heard, “In need of a good spanking.”  Yes, most Seekers are accused of needing more discipline, and therefore their parents are blamed for their behavior.  In an effort to educate about this phenomenon, which is as outdated as the “Refrigerator Mom” theory for autism, let’s list the behaviors.

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
  • Messy eater
  • Overstuffing their mouth
  • Eating spicy/hot foods
  • Under-responsive to pain (‘shakes it off’ quickly)
  • Dumping out toy bins just to look at everything
  • Excessive sensory play (mud, water, soap, etc.)
  • Jumping
  • Pushing
  • Loves running barefoot
  • Chewing on their toothbrush
  • Can’t sit still in their desk
  • Falls out of their chair for no apparent reason
  • Loves loud noises (turns up TV, battery toys against ears, vacuum.)
  • Can’t monitor their own volume (you constantly say, “Stop yelling!”)
  • Smells everything, even bad smells

This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a starting point.

Now let’s move on to Sensory Avoiders.

This is probably what jumps quickest to mind when you 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 that have problems with the basics in life: eating, dressing, bathing.  Normal sensation from day to day living interrupts these children’s functioning and makes it virtually impossible for them to learn or socialize appropriately.

Here are some things you might see a sensory avoider doing:

  • Picky eater (preferring one texture or basic flavors)
  • Covering 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
  • Dislike people too close
  • Refuse to take a bath/shower or play in the sprinkler
  • Hate water on their face
  • Hate/Refuse to brush their teeth
  • Complain of the smell
  • Complain it is too bright (wanting to wear sunglasses)
  • Over-responsive to pain (everything HURTS!)
  • Avoids/refuses stickers/fake tattoos

There are hundreds more examples (see the “Red Flags for SPD” checklist here), but this gives you an idea of the challenges kids and parents face every day. 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.

The surprising thing to most people is that although most kids tend to fall primarily on one side or the other, many kids have experiences in both avoiding and seeking.

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.

Here is an example:

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 is already exhausted and usually is in meltdown at the littlest sound from his brothers — even a normal speaking voice can cause issue. His body just can’t handle more input. Then, my normally ‘sensory seeking’ kid, is yelling to his brothers to “SHUTUP!” while pressing against his ears so hard that you would think we were blaring an air horn at him. He is displaying sensory avoidant behavior.

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 parent).

In future posts, I will talk more about how our children (and us as parents) learn to manage the sensory input by using strategies like “How Does Your Engine Run” and by implementing a Sensory Diet for home and school, as well as what happens when our kids do experience too much or too little input (Meltdown/Fight or Flight response).


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