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I am surrounded by sensory processing resources and education all the time. I tend to forget that others may not understand many of the terms related to sensory processing behaviors or sensory processing disorder. I recently saw a conversation on Facebook between some acquaintances that prompted me to address some common misconceptions when it comes to sensory processing. So today we are going to look at sensory avoiding vs. sensory seeking behaviors.
And did you know there is a third category for under-responsiveness to sensory input? Let's dive right in!
Sensory Avoiding vs Sensory Seeking
There are a few terms we need to dissect before we can begin to understand what sensory avoiding or sensory seeking behaviors can look like. You will see these terms referred to in a few different ways depending on what book you read, so I am including all the common phrases to describe each.
You will see sensory avoiding referred to as a few different things: hyper-responsive, over-responsive or hypersensitivity. Children with sensory avoiding behaviors are excessively responsive to sensory input. The slightest movement, touch, or sound could send you or a child into a negative behavior response. They will often avoid certain sensations, sounds, or environments because of this heightened awareness and response.
You will see sensory seeking referred to as hypo-responsive or hyposensitivity. This means a child does not receive enough sensory input and is constantly looking for or “seeking” it to get to that “just-right” level of arousal. These behaviors can impact their day because they are not able to focus or attend to a task until they are at that just-right level.
There is a third category that can be overlooked and may seem similar to sensory avoiding, but it is very different. Children with an under-responsive sensory system exhibit a diminished response to sensory input. More sensory input is needed than average in order to get a response. They can look like they are “lazy” or “tired” and just don't pay attention to their surroundings.
Common Misconceptions with Sensory Avoidings vs. Sensory Seeking
A common misconception is that if a child is a sensory avoider in a few areas of sensory processing that they will avoid all types of sensory input. This is simply not true. A child could avoid auditory or tactile input (sounds and touch) but could crave vestibular input (the sense of balance). And they could even avoid or crave different activities within the same sensory system.
What could this look like? You may have a child who can't stand tags on their clothing or the seems in their socks or shirts (part of the tactile system). But they may crave a tight fitting shirt or need to wear a weighted vest or a lycra body sock for different situations (this is tactile and proprioceptive input).
You may have a child who loves to spin or hang upside down but is afraid of heights (this is all part of the vestibular system).
A child may also have sensory seeking behaviors with one sensory system or avoiding behaviors or under-responsive behaviors with a different one.
It important to address a child's sensory avoiding, sensory seeking, and under-responsive behaviors when we are looking at sensory processing. All three can play a part in helping them to learn strategies and self-regulation tools to get through their day.
I have a 9-day sensory processing email series that will give you a quick overview of each of the 8 sensory systems, including avoiding, seeking, and under-responsive behaviors. You can sign up for it below!
If you'd rather not sign up with an email address, I also have a blog post on addressing each of the eight sensory systems here.
And if you would like to learn all about sensory avoiding, sensory seeking, and under-responsive behaviors along with tips, tools, and strategies for parents and educators, I have co-authored a book with my good friend Sharla. Sensory Processing Explained: A Handbook for Parents and Educators is your one-stop read for anything and everything related to sensory processing.
We address sensory vs. behavior (and how to tell the difference), sensory meltdowns vs. tantrums, and give you tips, tools, and strategies for addressing sensory needs in the home or classroom.
Paige DeLapa says
My 5 year old son can’t keep his hands to
Himself and is rough with the kids in his
Class. Is this sensory seeking or sensory
Avoiding or just a bad behavior?
Aaron K Green (aka The Busy Papa) says
My 5yo has SPD and I myself had it undiagnosed as a child (and still retain some symptoms). As such, it’s a subject I find touchy (erm…) and I want to thank you for some brilliant posts. I wish more OT’s were as informed as you around the world and though they try their best, I don’t think many are.