Sensory-seeking behavior is when a person engages in an activity in order to regulate their nervous system. If your child often acts out, they may be demonstrating sensory-seeking behaviors. Read on to learn what this entails.
What does sensory-seeking mean?
Sensory-seeking behavior is when a person engages in a specific behavior to regulate their nervous system. Sensory-seeking behaviors may calm a person down, or it may rev them up to increase energy. (The opposite of sensory-seeking is sensory-avoidance.)
People who don’t have the vocabulary to articulate this, like autistic children, don’t have the ability to communicate that this is why they are acting out. (And they might not realize it yet themselves.)
As a result, they begin trying to fulfill their sensory needs. It often looks like they’re:
- making messes
- being too loud
- purposely doing things they know they’re not allowed to do
- Engaging in activities just for attention
All behavior is communication. Not being able to explain one’s behavior doesn’t mean anything negative, but adults and other witnesses to that behavior often ascribe meaning to the behavior because the person can’t articulate it.
Imagine if you needed to scratch an itch on your back, and the closest option nearby was a cat wand toy. Someone walks in and asks why you have a cat toy down your shirt. You don’t know this sensation is “itchy”, or that you’re “itching” or “scratching”.
They only know what they’ve just seen: You put a cat toy down your shirt and are moving it about. How does that look to other people?
“It’s common sense,” you may think.
Is it, though?
The concept of common sense
Common sense implies someone else’s brain and thought processes function like yours. It is the concept of everyone thinking similarly and knowing the same things.
Common sense is that which “goes without saying” — that is, everyone is expected to know about these things without having them explained. Those who do not know common sense are viewed as “sheltered” or “stupid” because they don’t know something intuitively.
The weird part to me is that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences different things. What’s common in a gamer household isn’t going to be common in a limited screen time household.
The concept of common sense is a form of ableism, like so-called “jokes” where someone is actually bullying another in the name of “just kidding”.
It’s the same for neurodivergent kids. Your child doesn’t have the vocabulary to communicate to you this need using words (verbally or alternative communication).
In that instance with the cat toy down your shirt, you’re presumed to be doing something inappropriate. So you get into trouble, feel confused, and realize you need to hide the need to itch your back and only do it in private. You mask.
Are they seeking to fulfill a sensory need?
Answering this question isn’t easy. You can’t just say “no” and move on without asking, “Why not?” because everything can be pointed to potentially fulfilling sensory needs. Dismissing this as a possibility is a form of ableism, even if only internalized, without fully understanding their behavior.
- During the grieving process, people seek that which helps them to recover from their loss, often in the form of sensory input.
- When children “act out”, this is commonly sensory-driven so as to relieve their anger in a satisfying way, like hearing things crash against the wall, tearing pages out of books, or seeking to numb the pain.
Types of sensory input
You have your basic 5 senses:
However, there are at least 21 different senses, such as:
- Thermoception (ability to sense hot vs cold)
- Proprioception (know where your body parts are)
- Interoception (perceive and interpret bodily sensations and needs, like hunger, thirst, needing to use the bathroom, etc.)
Take these into account when determining whether a behavior is sensory-seeking , because it just might be.
3 Signs of sensory-seeking behavior (with helpful examples)
Now that you understand the concept of sensory-seeking behavior, here are some examples of what it looks like.
1. Unable to sit still
This is the most common form of sensory-seeking behavior. This may look like:
- nodding their head
While these behaviors could be a sign of another condition, you should first distinguish whether the other condition (e.g. alcohol or drug addiction) is sensory-seeking behavior as well.
If you have a teen who can’t sit still because they’re addicted to drugs or just tried drugs, you need to determine why they’re addicted. Look at the drugs as a behavior, instead of “just an addiction” or peer pressure.
The moment we assign our own meaning to people’s behavior or context that isn’t explicitly revealed, we are making assumptions. Deciding something is true, that someone else hasn’t said, is how setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Boredom can be a good thing because it gives time and space for thinking and creativity. However, sensory seekers and traumatized individuals often struggle with the concept of “doing nothing”.
This looks like:
- constantly being on the go (errands or to friends’ houses)
- watching TV all day
- scrolling social media (doom scrolling)
- gaming for hours or days at a time
What looks like “boredom” could instead be:
- struggling with executive dysfunction
- lack of interoception
- needing connection
- trying to meet sensory needs
Behaviors that promote sensory input get mistaken for problematic behavior. The United States prides itself on productivity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a way that contributes to capitalistic society. Not being productive turns “boredom” into a negative thing.
Boredom is the assumption we make on the surface, rather than the behavior that is being communicated.
No one likes talking about self-harm because of what surrounds it. Self-injurious behaviors like skin-picking, pulling out hair, and taking risks on the playground (e.g. jumping off swings when high) are forms of sensory-seeking when the context allows for it.
This sign is not meant to be dismissed as sensory-seeking behavior. As always, you should attempt to understand the underlying cause for the behavior before deciding why it exists.
Note when your child begins performing the behavior, but also what they were doing before that behavior.
- Were they exhibiting signs of stress or duress?
- Did they begin telling you about their day and shrink in or shut down once you shared your input?
Too often, parents and caregivers are keen to solve the problem another person has immediately, without listening and empathizing with the other person. Neurodivergent individuals tend to ask for help when they’re already in deep, and it feels like it’s too late.
In conclusion, when determining whether a behavior is sensory-seeking, take these 4 steps:
- Pay attention to the situation before, during and after the behavior.
- Refrain from filling in your own context to create your own conclusions.
- Listen to what the person engaging in the behavior is communicating.
- Choose empathy over problem-solving.