What is Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Childhood?
Sensory-seeking behavior in childhood is the tendency to seek out sensory experiences across the five senses: sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch. Many kids who have this issue are thrill-seekers. They like jumping off of high places, such as playground equipment. These kids may appear like they are always in the X-games and prefer activities that include some level of risk and excitement.
A sensory-seeking child: is often an active child who seeks physical contact and loud noises. Many children with challenges in this area are very intense in their movements. They may need a ‘sensory diet’ that includes a lot of input. For example, a child may prefer to be hugged tightly and may require deep pressure or weighted blankets to calm down. They may repeatedly jump off of high equipment or dive into a bean bag chair with a lot of intensity.
Some sensory-seeking kids may be struggling to move in a fluid and coordinated fashion. Motor skills are heavily regulated by the sensory system. A sensory-seeking child may appear to be uncomfortable in their own skin. They may look ‘floppy’ and have poor posture and a lack of stability. This ‘floppiness’ is not the case for all sensory-seeking children but can sometimes be an issue.
Extreme sports enthusiasts: Some sensory-seeking kids are highly coordinated, agile, and athletic. In that case, you might find that the child likes sports like diving, gymnastics, skateboarding, mountain biking, and motocross where they can get ‘big air.’ They are not easily intimidated by obstacles and risks. Instead, they run toward activities that include some level of risk and thrill.
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Symptoms of Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Children
- Jumping off of high places: your child likes jumping off of playground equipment, furniture, staircases, and the like
- Touching or stroking objects: your child may seek out unique forms of sensory input such as stroking another child’s hair, rubbing a piece of fabric, or feeling the need to touch the walls while walking down the hall
- Smelling objects: your child may be particularly curious about how certain objects smell. They may insist on getting very close to items so that they can find out how things smell
- Seeking intense movement: your child really enjoys jumping, hitting things, hugging, throwing objects, or slamming into walls
- At home at the bouncy gym: your child may be right at home at the trampoline park, bouncy castle, or other jumping gym
- Having trouble sitting still: your child may become bored and uncomfortable quickly when required to sit still
- Accidentally hurting people or breaking things: your child may be so active as to crash into people or break items accidentally
- Repetitive motions: your child may move constantly; enjoying being upside down, swinging, or spinning
- Slamming or thrusting body into things: your child may slam their body against walls, bean bags, trampolines, or other objects
- Getting hurt often: your child may get hurt often due to physical accidents; although some sensory seekers are very coordinated
- Feeling no pain: your child may not even notice after they cut their hand, bumped their head, or skinned their knee
- Unusually agile: your child may be especially agile and coordinated, seldom getting hurt, even when engaged in daring stunts and risky activities
Causes of Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Childhood
Thrill-seeker: If your child is more of a thrill-seeker type, it may be that they are coordinated and agile. There may be no issues with motor coordination, but rather problems in refraining from movement or stimuli.
In that case, your child may have some issues with attention, hyperactivity, or boredom.
Gifted children: if your child is gifted they may be more inclined toward sensory-seeking behavior because their systems are naturally a bit more sensitive.
It may be that their systems are ‘like a live wire,’ taking in the information from the environment like a turbulent storm. Instead of being overwhelmed by the storm, they want more of these exciting experiences. Some gifted kids may only feel at home when doing extreme sports or jumping at the trampoline park.
Struggles with motor coordination and sensory awareness: if your child struggles with this, there may be a neurological difference that is causing some difficulty in terms of taking in the information from physical sensations.
For example, your child may not even notice that they are getting hurt. They may jump again and again off of high places, even after bumping their head and scratching their knees.
Poor sensorimotor perception: if your child is struggling with poor sensorimotor your child may have issues in the areas of balance, motion, and body-space, and can be clumsy and uncoordinated. They may be easily injured and may have frequent falls. They often cannot judge their body space, bumping into walls while walking down the hall or hitting their heads on the top of the tunnel slide.
Children who have challenges with balance, coordination, and locomotion generally have sensory deficits in the vestibular or proprioceptive systems, or both.
Vestibular processing: if your child is struggling with vestibular processing the vestibular system is responsible for motor control, speed of movement, and the body’s position in space. Vestibular processing is best defined as,
“In essence, the vestibular system is like a precise internal GPS, used for maintaining the orientation of head and body in time and space, along with the auditory and visual systems”
Essentially, the vestibular system keeps track of where we are and where we are going. Children with difficulties in vestibular processing tend to miscalculate the space between themselves and other objects. They have poor physical boundaries and often crash into things or bump into people.
Proprioceptive processing:if your child is struggling with proprioceptive processing you will notice your child struggles with the ability to be aware of where their body is compared to their surroundings. Your child may have poor body space awareness. Children with poor proprioceptive modulation tend to struggle with motor milestones and basic coordination. They might be slow to crawl, walk, or run due to poor bilateral control.
Robots, gumby dolls, and the bull in the china shop: If your child struggles with sensory issues that look like not move smoothly and could look like a robot, being stiff and jerky in their movements. Alternately, they may look like ‘Gumby,’ being far too flexible and uncontrolled as they walk or run. Children with these issues may talk too close to people’s faces because they are unaware of body space. They may unintentionally knock over furniture or break objects. They may appear like ‘a bull in a china shop’.
Impacts and Challenges Related to Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Childhood
Dangerous thrill-seeking: In general, thrill-seekers can do just fine so long as they have access to lots of opportunities to seek out healthy thrills.
For example, a kid who likes an adrenaline rush might enjoy roller coasters, thrill rides, skate parks, and trampoline parks. If your child likes seeking out thrills, really focus on finding extreme sports and other places they can thrive.
Some thrill-seekers can get into trouble when ‘doing their own stunts’ and might find illegal or extremely risky places to get that rush of excitement they crave.
“One funny example of thrill-seeking gone wrong occurred in my child. He and some friends decided to climb up the grocery store wall and sit on the roof. They were just up there to take pictures for their social media posts. All was well and good until the neighbors called the police. The police came and told the boys that they had been trespassing and required them to call their parents. I remember asking my son what he was thinking, when he shared, “I just wanted to see what it was like up there.” In this benign example, parents can see how the tendency to seek thrills can sometimes lead to issues with authority figures.”
Excessive cognitive load: One important issue to consider with regard to sensory processing is something called cognitive load.
All of our movements and body space are regulated by the vestibular and proprioceptive systems and are supposed to be somewhat automatic. Most of us do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about how close things are to us, how our legs are positioned, or whether or not we are about to bump into a wall.
When these skills are taking a lot of effort for your child, concerns can be raised about something psychologists call ‘cognitive load.’ That is, when things that are supposed to be automatic take a lot of work, your child’s brain may have trouble thinking about the task at hand.
It is a struggle to have a productive day at work when you are hungry or are not feeling well. So much effort and energy is being spent on maintaining your physical body; your brain might not be able to think straight. This higher level of cognitive load may lead to challenges with attention, concentration, and learning.
Harmful odd behavior: Kids who are sensory seeking may also show some strange behaviors around peers.
For example, a child may reach out and pet a classmate’s hair. Another issue may be the tendency to rub one’s face on a piece of fabric repetitively. A child may run around in the wind, to feel the breeze, in a compulsive fashion.
These behaviors arise from a child’s tendency to seek out sensory stimulation.
The issue here is that these sensory behaviors can have an impact socially. Other kids may become annoyed with these sensory-seeking activities, especially if they become repetitive or obsessive.
Conditions that Commonly Include Sensory-Seeking Behavior
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association encourage parents and practitioners to be cautious with such terms as SPD.
They are careful because medical research suggests that sensory processing challenges may be symptoms of several different recognized medical conditions.
There is insufficient evidence in the research to suggest that sensory processing challenges occur alone as a “disorder.” For this reason, the medical community urges the treatment of sensory needs to be a part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a child.
Even though SPD is not a stand-alone diagnosis, your child may still benefit from treatment for sensory processing differences.
An Occupational Therapy evaluation, for example, may determine whether or not your child needs help with sensory processing.
Generally, an independent occupational therapy evaluation is solely for the purpose of understanding sensory or motor issues and how they are impacting participation in daily activities.
Although this can be very helpful, parents need to understand that this is only one type of assessment and will generally not look at challenges with attention, behavior, social skills, or anxiety.
If you have a referral from your pediatrician for an evaluation, ask questions about which type of assessment you need.
If there are concerns that go beyond sensory issues, which is generally the case, you probably need a comprehensive psychological evaluation.
You need to make sure that a psychologist or multidisciplinary team assesses your child if you want to know if their sensory sensitivity is related to any issues with behavior, emotions, attention, or cognitive processing.
Many parents believe they had a comprehensive assessment for their child at a young age only to discover that sensory development was the only area assessed.
Here are some potential underlying causes of sensory processing issues.
Children with ADHD often have sensory processing differences. Many kids with ADHD are likely to be sensory seekers, looking for contact, sensory input, rough play, climbing sports, and the like. If your child has sensory differences and attention challenges, ADHD may be important to rule in or out. Children with ADHD may also struggle with concepts like personal space and body awareness, which may relate to their sensory perception.
Children who are intellectually gifted can have unique sensory systems. It is not unusual for gifted kids to be extremely sensitive to certain inputs such as smells and touch. They may not be able to stand wearing a collar or pants with a traditional waistband. They may insist on wearing a loose tee-shirt and sweatpants every day. On the other hand, that sensory system can be on overdrive. Some gifted kids are only comfortable when they are moving intensely, jumping, doing flips, or engaging in extreme sports.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Children who have a developmental delay or have been diagnosed with autism are very likely to have sensory differences, including sensory-seeking tendencies. Sensory symptoms fall in the restricted interests and repetitive behavior category of the autism diagnosis.
Children on the Spectrum generally uniquely feel sensory experiences.
Knowing this, parents can be aware of sensory needs and allow for some of these to be accommodated.
For example, if your child doesn’t like scratchy tags, cut them out. If your child dislikes collared shirts, let them wear a tee shirt instead. If your child is sensory seeking, allow lots of time on the jungle gym, trampoline, climbing gym, and the like. They may also prefer weighted vests, weighted blankets, or weighted backpacks.
Sometimes, children with motor coordination disorders and challenges with gross and fine motor skills also have sensory processing differences.
Remember that the motor and sensory systems are intertwined and integrated. Children with issues in handwriting, for example, may also have challenges regulating their sensory systems. They may run around wildly on the playground or get in trouble for slamming into walls at the library.
What to Do About Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Childhood
Activities to help a sensory-seeking child, provided by an expert consulting occupational therapist on this article
Try these activities with your child.
- Jumping on a trampoline, large inner tube, couch cushions, a bed, or other similar objects
- Games that involve heavy work, such as wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, tug-of-war or playing tag
- Climbing on or hanging from monkey bars, jungle gyms, and the like
- Pushing or pulling wagon filled with heavy objects
- Wearing a weighted vest or carrying a weighted backpack
- Pushing with feet or hands against resistance (can be made into a game)
- Using heavy blankets, pillows or cushions
- Wrestling, giving or receiving bear hugs
- Gymnastics or tumbling classes
- Fidget toys for school
- Massaging lotion on arms, hands, legs, feet
- Laying on stomach to increase attention (more proprioceptive input from floor)
- Turning off lights to calm the environment
- Linear movement (like swinging)
- Chewing gum, licorice, beef jerky (for oral sensory seekers)
When to Seek Help for Sensory-Seeking Behavior
If you have tried the activities above and continue to wonder about your child’s sensory regulation, it is generally advised to have a full psychological evaluation. Why? Because in clinical practice, it is observed almost unilaterally that sensory problems do not occur in isolation. It is a mistake to think that your child’s sensory issue tells the whole story. It generally does not. Children with poor sensory regulation almost always have an underlying psychological, neurological, or medical difference.
Sensory Processing Disorder: In accordance with the American Medical Association, sensory problems are not considered a disability. Instead, these problems are considered a symptom of a disability. We feel strongly that too many children with autism, ADHD, or a medical condition are being drastically underserved with a diagnosis of ‘Sensory Processing Disorder.’
“Although sensory problems are worthy of and amenable to treatment, sensory therapy alone is unlikely to essentially, ‘cure what ails you.’ Said another way, children with sensory problems are likely to have disabilities that require therapies far beyond those recognized by a sensory regulation ‘diagnosis.’”
If you feel that your child may have a sensory problem, it is recommended that your child have a comprehensive psychological evaluation to consider the following: ADHD, Giftedness, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Trauma or PTSD, Developmental (Motor) Coordination Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, or Developmental Delay. Any of these disabilities may be the root cause of your child’s sensory problems. A licensed psychologist will not only determine which diagnoses are relevant for your child but will also make recommendations for treatment of that disability and any co-occurring sensory difficulties.
Professional Resources on Sensory-Seeking Behavior
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context, can administer a full battery of assessments to obtain diagnostic clarification and then make recommendations for research-based and efficacious treatments.
- School psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context and to evaluate for school services
- Physical therapist: to help with problems with balance and motor coordination
- Occupational therapist: to help with problems with sensory regulation and activities of daily living
Similar Conditions to Sensory-Seeking Behavior
- Attention: children with sensory sensitivities may have difficulties paying attention
- Social skills: children with developmental disabilities such as autism may have social skill and sensory challenges
- Adaptive skills: children with poor adaptive skills, such as difficulty with self-care or chores, may also have sensory challenges
- Academic problems: children with sensory needs may have difficulty in school
- Trauma or attachment: children with a trauma history may have sensory sensitivities or sensory-seeking behaviors
- Motor problems: children who have difficulty with sensory regulation may also have poor motor skills
Book Resources on Sensory-Seeking Behavior in Childhood
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
Trail (2011). Twice-exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.