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Understanding Sensory-Seeking Behavior
When you are raising a child on the autism spectrum, it can leave you with some very entertaining dinner table conversations. When my son with autism was about seven, he went through what I referred to as his Houdini phase. He loved to disappear and was discovered in some interesting places. When we were out grocery shopping, he vanished into thin air in the time it took me to check the expiration date on a loaf of bread. I found him in the frozen veg chiller licking ice off the inside door (awks!). At school, he would sneak out of class and go to the occupational therapy room. There, he would wedge himself between the oversized mattresses used for activities. When swimming, he spent 99 percent of the time completely immersed in the water, only popping up for a quick breath. I also think he thought his name was ‘don’t touch’ for the first five years of his life.
Close your eyes and drift into a state of serenity. Suddenly, an ear-piercing sound assaults your senses, and your arm is jabbed. For those struggling with sensory processing, this type of auditory and tactile sensitivity can be triggered in everyday environments such as a classroom, hallway, or even by a classmate’s fleeting touch. These moments become overwhelming and all-encompassing.
Kids with autism often have difficulty processing the endless amount of sensory information they receive – which is referred to as sensory processing disorder in ASD. Most people have no issues processing sensory signals, however, for children with sensory processing issues, it can be quite the challenge.
Kids with autism often find themselves in one of two sensory camps – they can be ‘sensory seekers’, underreacting to sensory input, like smells and textures, or ‘sensory avoiders’, overwhelmed and hyperactive in response to sensory stimuli. We all experience the world through our senses, and children with autism experience what comes in via each one of their senses differently. Some are extremely sensitive to sound and too much of it stresses them out. Others may become stressed by silence and constantly look for ways to break it. This applies to all sensory experiences. One child may become extremely distressed by their clothing rubbing on their skin. Another will constantly touch and rub their clothes to experience more sensory input.
Sensory seeking: What it is and how it looks
Most sensory seekers are sensitive to input (sometimes called “hyposensitivity”). They look for more sensory stimulation. Children who are sensory seekers may appear clumsy, be a little too loud, or have “behavior issues” because they are trying to get the sensory stimulation they need in order to feel balanced. They seek out intense sensory input such as deep pressure, tactile sensations, and strong movements in order to regulate their bodies and brains. When they don’t get the right kind of sensory input, they may become anxious, over-stimulated, or frustrated. As a result, they may become overly active and make loud noises, or even misbehave in an effort to get the sensory input they need.
Sensory input can help stimulate kids to feel less sluggish. It can also soothe them and help them feel more organized in their own bodies and space.
Examples of sensory-seeking behaviors include:
- Visually seeking shiny objects and light
- Hand flapping or moving their arms more often
- Staring at spinning objects
- Listening to loud music
- Making loud noises
- Biting their own skin
- Sucking, chewing, or licking objects
- Smelling things to get comfortable with them
- Tasting toys and other objects
- Rocking their body
- Enjoying rough play
- Rolling and moving regularly
- Standing too close when talking to others (no sense of personal space)
- Having an unusual tolerance for pain.
- Walking with loud, heavy steps.
How to keep calm and keep your child safe
While some sensory-seeking behaviors can be beneficial for children with autism, others can be harmful. For example, they can help them regulate their emotions and can also provide them with a feeling of comfort. Additionally, these behaviors can help them stay focused, alert, calm, and relaxed. A lot of the time, sensory input-seeking may be subtle and harmless. However, they can also be disruptive and anxiety-provoking for parents, especially if the behavior can harm their child or others. It can be difficult to understand why your child is seeking out certain types of sensory input, and this can lead to frustration and stress. Then there are the rubber-necking bystanders who may find your child’s behavior odd. Remember that these behaviors are a normal part of autism, and you can find ways to manage them positively.
Ways to Help Your Child Find Positive Sensory Input Without Turning your Hair Gray
Gear Your Home to Safety
As soon as their little ones crawl around, all parents will worry about their home’s safety. Baby-proofing becomes a top priority, but for parents of children with autism, there may be additional risks due to their child’s tendency to be fixated on certain items and to exhibit sensory-seeking behaviors. This can make them reckless and unable to see the potential dangers of certain actions.
Think of the dangers that may arise from access to medications, chemicals, sharp objects, glassware, electrical outlets, or furniture; it’s essential to be mindful of these items’ risks when within reach of a child. Other examples of potential dangers may include: climbing on furniture and falling, having a furniture item fall on them, or leaving the house without anyone’s knowledge. Ultimately, it’s of utmost importance to take into account the potential risks when a child is around.
TEACH & REWARD
Picture your home as your child’s classroom – where they can learn valuable home safety skills! Utilize the same techniques you would use to teach any other skill: reward correct behavior, be clear with what is deemed unsafe, and make use of social stories, activity schedules, visual rules, checklists, and signs to reinforce their learning. For example, if you have a ‘no’ rule for certain areas of the home, and your child asks you to go there for them in order to retrieve something, praise them for asking rather than going into an out-of-bounds area.
GIVE VISUAL BOUNDARIES
Create clear boundaries by using labels or pictures on the doors that lead outside or to a stairwell, kitchen cabinets, rooms, and other appliances. This way, your child can better understand instructions and expectations and avoid dangerous situations. Keep everything in order by putting items back in their proper places – this will prevent frustration and help your child feel at ease.
INSTALL SAFETY DEVICES
Consider installing alarm systems, special locks, and covers on electrical outlets. Additionally, store any potentially dangerous items (knives, matches, cleaning chemicals, etc.) in locked or out-of-reach places and secure anything that could be used for climbing if your child is a climber.
SET AN EMERGENCY PROCEDURE
Lastly, ensure that your family knows exactly what to do in an emergency. Who do they call? If someone is taking care of your child for you, make sure they can reach you and have the numbers of your child’s doctor or any relevant people that should be contacted in an emergency.
Accommodate the Behavior Rather Than Stop It
Fighting the issue will only create frustrations in both you and your child, but accommodating the behavior will create understanding. Addressing a child’s sensory difficulties can help build the parent-child bond. Labeling them as ‘badly behaved’ will not fix the issue. When they become distressed, something is likely causing their reaction. Maybe the child is getting irritated from their clothing rubbing constantly – they are not acting out for attention. Building trust and understanding their struggles is vital in terms of managing the situation.
Find Appropriate Ways To Give Sensory Input
Find appropriate ways to give your child sensory input. Firm massage or deep pressure with pillows, cushions, or rolling in a weighted blanket can work wonders in calming down the brain and releasing dopamine, the “happy neurotransmitter” that promotes relaxation in the body.
Other ways to give sensory input include:
- Proprioceptive (information sent to the brain and spinal cord from the body’s muscles, joints, and tendons) – Weighted vests and backpacks are great for stimulating body joints and muscles, enhancing self-regulation, modulation, and reducing anxiety. The deep pressure they provide to larger body areas helps ease sensory overstimulation.
- Vestibular (activities that help regulate the nervous system and improve attention and focus) – swinging, rocking, spinning, rolling on an exercise ball, and jumping on a trampoline.
- Visual input – visual tracking exercises and discrimination tasks, books, puzzles, coloring, drawing, and looking at pictures or videos
- Auditory – listening to soft music, playing instruments, and listening to audiobooks or stories.
- Olfactory – smelling essential oils, herbal teas, and herbs.
- Tactile – playing with different textures, water play, and sensory activities such as playdough, and finger painting.
Provide a Sensory-Rich Environment
Another way to help your child with autism find positive sensory input is to provide them with a sensory-rich environment. By providing them with the right sensory stimulation, their gross motor, fine motor, cognitive and perceptual skills can be enhanced, and they will be able to better self-regulate and cope with stress.
If possible, allocate a room or space for your child with all the necessary items inside. Many wonderful sensory toys are available to help your child’s sensory-seeking behavior.
If your child needs proprioceptive input (which activates the joints and muscles) and loves to jump on the trampoline, then get one. It can be incredibly calming.
A swing, rocking horse, rocking chair, or therapy ball can be provided for vestibular input. Vestibular input is the perception of any shift in position, direction, or motion of the head. It is achieved through specialized receptors in the inner ear that are stimulated by the fluid in the ear canals as one moves.
If your child is a visual seeker and scared of the dark, a LED light or string of lights in their room can make them feel secure and cater to their visual needs.
Try a textured board or ball pit for tactile stimulation, one of the most effective ways to soothe a child feeling overwhelmed. If they have auditory hypersensitivity, try a wireless or Bluetooth speaker in the room they frequent in the house. Finally, aromatherapy oils are a great way to provide olfactory input and bring comfort.
Educate Others to Have More Realistic Expectations And Understanding Of His Behaviors
Educating others, such as grandparents and teachers, about your child’s sensory needs is essential. This will help to ensure that they have a better understanding of your child’s behaviors and can help to provide them with a more realistic expectation of how to interact and respond to your child. This also ensures they provide your child with the appropriate sensory input when you are not around.
Develop thicker skin!
Finally, remember that not everyone will understand your child’s behaviors. It is crucial to develop a thick skin and not take it personally when people do not understand or respond positively to your child’s behaviors. You are the best advocate for your child, and it is essential to remind yourself of this when feeling discouraged.
ABA And Sensory Integration Therapy
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and sensory integration therapy are two types of therapies that can be beneficial for children with autism. ABA focuses on teaching children positive behaviors and skills, while sensory integration therapy focuses on helping children regulate their sensory input. Both therapies can help your child manage their behaviors and find positive sensory input.
Finding positive sensory input for your child with autism can be challenging. However, these behaviors are a normal part of autism, and you can find ways to manage them. If you need advice about sensory regulation in children with autism, Circle Care Services in New Jersey and Massachusetts is here to help. Our specialists are equipped to help your child and your family with communication, social skills, behavior concerns, and parent training.
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