Is your teenager experimenting with alcohol, drugs and tobacco? They might be neurodivergent and sensory seeking, which is different from them acting out for no reason.
What is sensory seeking?
Sensory seeking behavior is when a neurodivergent individual needs to fulfill their sensory needs. The worse the behavior result — like excessive drinking — the less they understand what is happening.
Neurodivergence is a person with a brain that thinks differently. This often includes people with a diagnosis of ADHD, autism (ASD), dyslexia, or other different brain pathways for processing information and interacting with the world. Neurodivergent is a non-medical term, but it is becoming more widely accepted in society.
If your loved one has never been considered for a neurodivergent diagnosis, especially autism or sensory processing disorder (SPD), they might unknowingly be neurodivergent. Not knowing you’re neurodivergent doesn’t change your neurodivergence — it just prevents you from understanding what is happening.
On the surface, it might look like behavior problems.
Sensory seeking is not always related to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Neurotypical individuals experience sensory needs, but their brains do not require it immediately. Neurodivergent people struggle to ignore their sensory needs because they brain cannot “just let it go” or adapt (habituate).
What sensory seeking looks like in young children
When a baby bites, they are looking to fill a sensory need. Their incoming teeth hurt their gums, so they need to alleviate or self-soothe through biting. After four years old, most children stop this behavior for good.
Neurodivergent children, such kids with autism and/or sensory processing disorder, will continue biting as a stim. We call this stim chewing, and there is chew-friendly jewelry known as chewelry specifically for this reason.
Children craving certain sensory stimuli might also:
- climb on or jump off everything
- feel or smell everything
- play with their food
- watch a lot of television
Sensory seeking behaviors in teens and adults
While teens and adults desperate to satisfy their sensory needs might behave similarly to young children, they have access to more outlets, some of which are harmful.
If your ADHD/autistic teen is constantly drinking, smoking and experimenting with harmful drugs, it’s not so much a behavioral issue than it is an attempt to pacify sensory cravings. They might not have the tools to help them identify these needs or the self-awareness to articulate their sensory needs, so asking them is pointless.
Hypersexuality, a fancy name for sexual addiction, is an obsession with sexual behaviors, fantasies or urges that disrupt your health, relationships and life overall. It’s another common method teens and adults use to satisfy their sensory cravings. Certain feelings are more intense when you experience sensory sensitivities.
What isn’t sensory seeking
Regardless of your personal beliefs, it is not sensory seeking or a behavioral issue if your child/teen does any of the following:
- comes out as LGBTQ+
- dresses androgynous instead of, or opposite, the clothes socially acceptable per their assigned sex
- has beliefs different from yours about life, including religion and work culture
While children may do things to spite their parents if the relationship is unhealthy, none of those things should be perceived as a phase. It can cause trauma, more harm, and destroy the relationship you have with your child.
Activities for sensory seekers
You know how some people grow familiar with change over time — like with a new curtain or decorations? It’s called habituating. Autistic people don’t habituate. Therefore, sensory therapy seeking to stop self-stimulatory and sensory-related behaviors will only cause trauma.
If you want to work towards resolving the harmful sensory behaviors, you need to offer alternative activities.
Use an anecdote to relate and connect with your sensory seeker. Autistic people relate to and empathize with other people by sharing personal anecdotes.
Did you turn to alcohol in your teens as a way to numb the pain of a heartbreak, and then your started painting instead? Use that:
“When I was 17, I loved drinking because it helped me stop feeling everything. It turned it all off. But it also messed up my body, made my brain foggy. I turned to art. Lately, I’ve been feeling like doing more art because my brain wants an outlet where it doesn’t have to think. Do you have anything like that?”
Conversations with autistic people tend to be one anecdote after the other. To non-autistics, it will come off as “talking too much about oneself,” but this communication is a part of autistic culture.
You can comparing your feelings to the experience of a character in your favorite movie or book as an alternative option.
Essential oils can calm or anger a person. Years ago, I used lavender essential oil to fall asleep at night, but when I sprayed it on my rowdy kid cousin’s pillow to help him to go to sleep, he became more aggressive. Aromatherapy does not work on everyone.
It also does not need to be only essential oils. Scents trigger certain memories or emotions in the brain, reminding us of things we might have smelled before.
Wax melts are a safe alternative and allow for customization. If you don’t know what scents your teen likes, give them a budget in the wax melts aisle (staying with them while shopping) so they can choose what they want. Make sure to get them their own wax warmer.
As long as they’re not using the wax warmer to harm themselves, playing with the wax is a safe, soothing activity. The only downside is an ugly wax melt once solidified once again, but who cares if it’s theirs?
Bonus idea: You can mix certain scents to create better scents. One wax cube of up to three scents creates a unique signature fragrance. The exclusivity alone might boost their mood.
- one natural/earthy/masculine fragrance cube + one sweet/homey fragrance cube
- one fruity wax cube + one subtle wax cube
Use up to two wax cubes to emphasize or play down subtle scents.
From finger painting to dart painting, anything and everything acts as an art tool if you’re creative enough.
It’s art. There are no rules.
If dexterity is not your child’s thing, consider spray bottles, water guns, or bubble painting.
Provide a wide variety of stim toys and sensory outlets. Younger children may appreciate a sensory wall of sorts, featuring different textures they can touch. Older children may enjoy an entire wall of Pop Sockets.
Teens and adults with anger and sensory issues might find a weekly, fortnightly or monthly rage room session therapeutic. Rage rooms are safe outlets for pent-up rage and anger, where you get to destroy property. Everything in the room can be destroyed.
An absolute redirect is when your goal is to fully stop a behavior by redirecting it to a better one. In the case of alcohol, drug, tobacco and sex addiction, this might look like going into rehab for proper treatment. I did this when, as a sensory avoider, I received outpatient treatment for atypical anorexia.
In order to fully recover, the sensory seeker will need professional treatment where they aim to replace that sensory outlet with a sensory need.
Your child’s medical team is not your boss. They’re your colleagues. If they do not work with you to develop a healthy redirection for your child’s unhealthy sensory outlet, find a better team.
Is it possible your teen is engaging in unhealthy behaviors for sensory-seeking reasons? Tell us about it in the comments below.