Tips and Tricks for Your Sensory Seeking Child

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L May 11, 2023 3 Comments

Sensory Seeking

What is a sensory seeker? What are the signs and what exactly do they mean? How can you help your child meet their sensory seeking needs so they can feel successful throughout their day? This article answers these questions, and more!

Sensory Craving (aka Sensory Seeker)

The term “sensory seeker” is fairly common these days. But what does it actually mean?

“Sensory seeking” comes from a category within Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): Sensory Craving. To get even more technical, Sensory Craving falls within a specific subtype of SPD, Sensory Modulation Disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Craving refers to someone who needs more input than others and who will seek out the input, however does so in a disorganized way. This can look like a child who spins and does not get dizzy; a child who makes random noises throughout the day; a child who touches everything in their environment; or a child who plays too rough for the situation.

A sensory seeker often does not understand when “enough is enough.” They seek out sensory input in order to feel more regulated, but they cannot modulate or process the input, which often results in more dysregulation. This causes chaos during daily activities, such as the morning or evening routine, going to school, and running errands such as going to the grocery store.

Signs of a sensory seeker

There are eight sensory systems, and your child can be a sensory seeker within one or more of these eight systems.

Vestibular

Vestibular input comes from any type of movement that involves a head position change. We all have vestibular receptors within our inner ear, so when our head moves, the fluid in our inner ear moves, which activates our vestibular system. Vestibular input is directly connected to our visual and auditory systems, as well as has a direct impact on muscle tone and balance. Additionally, vestibular input is typically alerting.

Signs that your child is a vestibular sensory seeker:

  • Always on the go; never seems to stop moving
  • Never seems to get dizzy
  • Loves to swing and slide and jump - they seek out these types of activities
  • Seeks out ways to get movement, which interferes with daily tasks

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their vestibular seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, sitting in the classroom, safely moving through their environment, sitting to eat a meal, or any other daily routine task (including sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing vestibular information, they may also struggle with:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Low muscle tone and endurance
  • Visual motor tasks such as playing ball or handwriting
  • Noticing others in their environment
  • Holding conversations or responding when called

Proprioception

sensory seeking

Proprioceptive input comes from movement - we have proprioceptive receptors in our joints and muscles so that when we move, these receptors activate and tell our brain where we are, what we’re doing, and how well we’re doing it so that adjustments can be made. Proprioception is directly connected to our tactile system, as well as is considered the “all calming” sense - certain types of proprioceptive input can be calming to the nervous system.

Signs that your child is a proprioceptive sensory seeker:

  • Loves to move - specifically run, jump, and “crash”
  • Seeks out rough-and-tumble play
  • May play too roughly, or use too much force for certain situations
  • Mouths / chews non-edibles frequently

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their proprioceptive seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing proprioceptive information, they may also struggle with:

  • Body awareness and spatial relations
  • Coordination for sports or riding a bicycle
  • Self-soothing / self-regulation
  • Self-feeding
  • Attention and focus for age-appropriate tasks

Vision

When we talk about the visual system, we’re not talking about visual acuity, or how well you can see objects near and far. The visual sensory system is what you see, how your brain processes and interprets what you see, and then how you respond. As mentioned above, the visual system is directly connected to the vestibular system, which means that if something isn’t working the way it should with one, the other is likely to be affected.

Signs that your child is a visual sensory seeker:

  • Stares at certain moving objects, or light up objects, for long periods of time
  • Intentionally moves objects in certain ways (spinning a toy, throwing a toy)
  • Spins entire body, trying to get dizzy
  • Seeks out fast movement or fast action TV shows
  • Excessive blinking (unrelated to physical tics)

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their visual seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, completing school tasks, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing visual information, they may also struggle with:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Hand-eye coordination tasks
  • Reading and writing
  • Fine motor tasks such as self-feeding or fasteners on clothing

Auditory

When we talk about the auditory system, we’re not talking about how well you can hear. The auditory system is similar to the visual system, in that it has to do with what you hear, how your brain processes and interprets what you hear, and how you respond. As mentioned above, the auditory system is directly connected to the vestibular system, due to the fact that your vestibular receptors are located in your inner ear.

Signs that your child is an auditory sensory seeker:

  • May put their ear close to things that make noise
  • Makes noise throughout the day, with their mouth or body
  • Seeks out loud noises and requests the TV or music to be louder
  • May also seek out vestibular input, especially if the movement also causes a noise

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their auditory seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing auditory information, they may also struggle with:

  • Vestibular processing
  • Following multi-step instructions
  • Holding a conversation
  • Understanding what certain sounds mean

Tactile

We have tactile receptors all over our skin, including inside our mouth. These tactile receptors are always “on,” meaning they are always processing anything that is touching our skin: clothing, hair, wind, food, etc. As mentioned above, the tactile system is directly connected to the proprioceptive system, and oftentimes tactile input also provides proprioceptive input, such as a hug from our friend or when someone bumps into us.

Signs that your child is a tactile sensory seeker:

  • Touches everything / everyone nearby
  • Fidgets with anything they can get their hands on
  • Makes noises with their hands (also related to the auditory system)
  • Intentionally crashes or bumps into things (also related to the proprioceptive system)
  • Seeks out messy play
  • Is a very messy eater

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their tactile seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, playing with their peers, safely moving through their environment, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, getting dressed, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing tactile information, they may also struggle with:

  • Fine motor tasks such as handwriting, self-feeding, and dressing
  • Wearing certain types of clothing
  • Bathing / washing / hygiene tasks
  • Self-soothing / self-regulation

Gustatory and olfactory

Your gustatory (sense of taste) and olfactory (sense of smell) systems are so intertwined, that we are going to talk about them together! These two senses help with eating and drinking. They work together as you prepare food and eat. The olfactory sense is also connected to our memories and emotions. Additionally, because we have tactile receptors inside our mouth as well as proprioceptive receptors in our jaw, these senses are all connected.

Signs that your child is a gustatory and/or olfactory sensory seeker:

  • Is a messy eater
  • Seeks out strong flavors
  • Seeks out crunchy, chewy, resistive foods
  • Mouths non-edibles (not related to pica)
  • May smell everything / everyone nearby

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their gustatory and/or olfactory seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, social interactions, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time and hygiene tasks).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing gustatory and/or olfactory information, they may also struggle with:

  • Self-feeding skills
  • Verbal communication and articulation
  • Picky eating

Interoception

This hidden (eighth) sense is your ability to understand the internal workings of your body. This includes things like hunger and thirst, knowing when to use the bathroom, if you feel ill, and temperature regulation. It also is connected to emotional intelligence and your ability to understand your emotions, regulate them, and communicate successfully.

Signs that your child is an interoceptive sensory seeker:

  • Seeks out extreme temperatures
  • Eats until they are over-full
  • May hold bowel movements
  • May be an extreme risk taker
  • Has very big emotions and struggles to self-regulate

In order for a child to be a “true” sensory seeker, these impulses must directly interfere with their ability to get through their day. Their interoceptive seeking habits cause challenges with transitions, social interactions, focusing during class time, or any other daily routine task (including meal time, using the bathroom, and sleep).

Additionally, if your child struggles with processing interoceptive information, they may also struggle with:

  • Body awareness
  • Hunger and thirst cues
  • Pain tolerance or pain awareness
  • Toilet training
  • Emotional intelligence

Tips and tricks for your sensory seeker

Now let’s dive into some tips and tricks! If your child is a sensory seeker/sensory craver, it can be helpful to seek out a trained therapist (like an occupational therapist, OT) who can provide sensory strategies and a personalized sensory diet. The following is a list of strategies, broken up by age.

Sensory seeking toddlers

If your toddler is displaying signs of sensory seeking behavior, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re helping them meet their sensory needs. This is also known as “meeting the sensory threshold.” Learn more about how to do this by listening to this podcast episode.

If your toddler is seeking out lots of movement, set up movement activities that they can go through - like an obstacle course. Provide opportunities for them to run and jump and crash, if that’s what they are seeking out. If they are seeking out visual or auditory input, provide more opportunities for them to receive that input in a purposeful way.

For a sensory seeking toddler, it’s helpful to set up a “start and stop” activity. Include the sensory activities they are seeking out and help them complete those activities a specific number of times. Include counting, singing, and “stop!” at the end. For example, if your toddler seeks out vestibular and proprioceptive input, set up a 2 step obstacle course with couch cushions and a tunnel. Help your child crawl through the tunnel (which provides lots of proprioceptive input), then jump and crash on the cushions (which provides both proprioceptive and vestibular input). Then repeat 3-5 times. As they learn the sequence, you can add more variety and different types of sensory activities to the routine.

Some great activities to try with your sensory seeking toddler:

  • Pushing a heavy laundry basket
  • Climbing up the slide
  • Draw “lily pads” on the sidewalk and jump on them
  • Animal walks - bear walk, wheelbarrow walk, crab walk
  • Crawling through tunnels while pushing a ball
  • Do a puzzle while laying on tummy over a ball (propped up on arms)

Also for your toddler, identify when they display the most sensory seeking behavior. Is it always at a certain time of the day? Is it always after a certain event? Be sure to include their sensory activities prior to those challenging times when they are seeking input more. You can create a simple sensory diet routine that provides your toddler with the sensory input they seek, in order to help them feel more regulated. Learn more about sensory diets here.

Sensory seeking children ages 5+

Once your child is out of toddlerhood and likely in school, at least part time, we can see more sensory seeking behaviors. This often occurs due to the new demands being placed on them: sitting and focusing; less free time; following auditory instructions; etc. We may see challenges sitting still, challenges following multi-step instructions, and frequent meltdowns.

First, you want to meet your child’s sensory needs - just like when they were a toddler! Their sensory system is maturing but it still needs lots of sensory input throughout the day, and likely more input in a more structured way if they are a sensory seeker. Be sure to include a sensory diet routine into the day: in the morning, before leaving the house, after school, before dinner, before bedtime, etc.

Older children can complete more complex obstacle courses to meet their sensory needs! Watch this YouTube video to learn how to set up a simple obstacle course!

As your child gets older, it’s important to teach them about their sensory needs. Start narrating what they are seeking out and how it makes them feel, then ask them questions.

  • “It looks like your body wants to swing!”
  • “Your body is moving so fast! Do you want to do more?”
  • “How does this activity make you feel?”
  • “Does this make you feel happy or sleepy?”

Always be sure to keep your statements and questions neutral or positive - avoid negative language such as, “out of control” or “that’s bad.” We want to make sure our children know that we all have sensory needs so it’s also important to model your own sensory strategies and how you meet your own sensory needs!

Some activities to try with your older sensory seeking child:

  • Hiking
  • Monkey bars
  • Jump rope
  • Rock climbing
  • Karate / martial arts
  • Throw items to a target while swinging
  • Metronome activities (learn more about using a metronome with this 30 day challenge)

Sensory seeking in school

sensory classroom

What about school - how do we help our students meet their sensory seeking needs in the classroom? For teachers, try talking to your school OT about some strategies you can implement. Then, identify ways you can include quick sensory activities/sensory breaks into the classroom routine. Can your students complete animal walks to their desk? Can they complete chair push ups while listening to a lecture? Can you create a 5 minute calm-down routine after a transition?

For more ideas, check out this YouTube video for implementing sensory strategies into the daily school routine.

Sensory seeking teens and adults

Just because a child grows up into a teenager and eventually an adult doesn’t mean they “grow out of” sensory seeking! Their sensory needs will likely change throughout the course of their life, but they may always be a sensory seeker. You might be the parent to a young sensory seeker and suddenly find out that YOU are also a sensory seeker!

The strategies for teens and adults are very similar to younger children - first and foremost, find ways to meet their sensory needs. It might look different as they age, but there are still lots of ways to meet the sensory threshold:

  • Go for a run or a walk outside
  • Go for a bike ride
  • Take a fitness class
  • Swing (adults can swing too!)
  • Go rock climbing
  • Go swimming
  • Use a therapy ball seat for desk work
  • Take frequent movement breaks throughout the day
  • Eat sensory friendly food - crunchy, chewy, resistive foods
  • Drink water from a small straw
  • Diffuse essential oils or use an essential oil roller
  • Listen to music
  • Use noise-canceling headphones

Listen to this podcast episode to learn more about sensory processing in adulthood!

Identify strengths

Sensory seeking children often have challenges with self-confidence. They may realize that they are “different” from their peers; they may struggle to make and keep friends; they may be considered the “bad” kid in school; simple daily tasks are more difficult. Because of this, it’s important to build up their self-confidence by helping them identify their strengths.

What is your sensory seeking child REALLY good at? What are they interested in? Ask them questions and engage with them in what they enjoy. Help foster their strengths. Reinforce their effort over the results. Set them up for success and teach them how to problem solve.

No matter what your child’s sensory needs are, you can help teach your child how to meet their sensory needs so they feel regulated and can successfully complete the things they have to and want to do every day!

 

Check out our awesome videos about tips & strategies for parenting a sensory seeker!

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialist. She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


3 Responses

Nika
Nika

November 15, 2023

Hi. What reflex is responsible for sensory seeking? And can we help a child integrating those reflexes?

Prabha Mishra
Prabha Mishra

June 30, 2023

Nice article which covered all type of sensory problems and written in a good way to understand by parent professionals.

Shalini
Shalini

June 30, 2023

Is the above applicable to toddler/babies less than 2 years old?

Say if they can’t stand still everytime we change their diaper or love climbing, does it mean their sensory seeker?

Could you recommend the resources that we should look at to understand end to end about sensory diet, activities and how to assess them?

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