Sensory-seeking behaviors are not inherently problematic. In fact, they can be very helpful for some autistic children. 

Repetitive and sensory behaviors are some of the characteristics of autism. Most people with autism have some issues with sensory processing. This can include sensory-seeking behaviors. This is when someone intentionally seeks out sensory input through smell, touch, taste, sight, or sound. 

Sometimes, these behaviors can be soothing and helpful. But other times, they may be troubling to the person. By addressing these behaviors head on, it can become easier to focus on other tasks, handle day-to-day activities, and better regulate emotions.

Recognizing Sensory-Seeking Behaviors

Sensory-seeking behaviors are attempts to get feedback from the environment often due to an issue with sensory processing. It can include any of the five senses and is often the result of being either hypo-sensitive (underactive) or hypersensitive (overreactive). 

These behaviors can include the following:

  • Irregular body movements like hand flapping, head banging, finger tapping, bouncing up and down, or rocking back and forth
  • Chewing on things that are not food
  • Squeezing or putting pressure on body parts
  • Watching something intently for long periods of time
  • Sniffing things
  • Food aversions
  • Sensory avoidance, such as covering eyes or ears, or staying away from certain sounds, smells, or textures

Difficulties with sensory processing often lead to sensory-seeking behaviors, as it can be hard to interpret and understand input from the environment. This can lead to behavior problems, meltdowns, aggressive outbursts, self-harming behaviors, anxiety, difficulties focusing on tasks, and depression.

Sensory-seeking behaviors are often an attempt to calm an overactive or aroused nervous system. They can interfere with daily life functioning and attention deficits.

The Connection Between Sensory Issues & Autism

More than half of people with autism also have sensory processing issues, which can include sensory-seeking behaviors. This could be related to brain function and connectivity and the way the brain and body process information from the environment. 

Sensory-seeking behaviors in people with autism often come from an attempt to self-regulate the central nervous system.

These behaviors can become problematic when they interfere with the ability to concentrate and manage daily life tasks and functioning. Sensory-seeking behaviors that are dangerous to the self or others can also be cause for concern and need to be addressed.But sensory-seeking behaviors are not all bad. They can be a way for an autistic child to express themselves or connect with the world around them. 

Managing Sensory-Seeking Behaviors in Children

As a parent, the first thing to do when addressing sensory-seeking behaviors is to observe your child to better understand what these behaviors are and what might be triggering them. For example, if your child gets overstimulated by loud noises and crowded rooms, they may cover their eyes or ears, rock back and forth, or engage in other forms of reactive behaviors to try and calm themselves.

Once you have identified what the sensory-seeking behaviors are and their possible root cause, you can then decide how you want to handle them. Not all sensory-seeking behaviors will have a specific identifiable trigger; they may happen sometimes and not others, with no consistency. 

What you can do to help address sensory-seeking behaviors is decide what is appropriate and when. For instance, are the behaviors harming anyone or interfering with daily tasks, social opportunities, or learning? Once you know which behaviors need to be managed, you can set up ways to do so.

Action Plan for Parents

You can handle interventions for sensory-seeking behaviors in several ways. You can make accommodations at home to help manage these behaviors. 

Occupational therapy can also be useful for creating strategies. Occupational therapists can use sensory-based interventions and sensory integration methods to help calm the central nervous system for better levels of functioning.

Here are some methods for coping with sensory-seeking behaviors at home:

  • Environmental accommodations: This can include dimming the lights, using noise-canceling headphones, or wearing a hat or sunglasses to help moderate overstimulation of the senses.

  • Vestibular movement and input: This type of movement includes jumping, rocking, or swinging and is often comforting to children who seek sensory input. Both indoor and outdoor swings, rocking chairs, and bars to swing on can be beneficial for this kind of movement.

  • Deep-pressure and/or tactile input: Squishy balls, lap pads, and weighted blankets can provide a calming sensation for children seeking sensory input.

    Children with autism and sensory-seeking behaviors can often benefit from sitting on a yoga ball to bounce while they work. They may use a weighted lap pad or blanket to help provide sensory input so they can better focus on other tasks.

    It can also be helpful to set up a “crash pad” or an area with mats, pillows, bean bags, or mattresses that a child can jump onto safely to gain the sensory input they are looking for in a safe environment.

  • Weight-bearing and climbing activities: Called proprioceptive input, climbing and weight-bearing activities can give the body feedback that sensory-seeking behaviors are craving. Challenging balance and coordination can help to focus the mind and calm an aroused nervous system.

  • Sensory diet: A sensory diet provides access to sensory-seeking actions that are appropriate and safe, and that can offer variety. This is generally prescribed by an occupational therapist and includes specific activities through a detailed program to address sensory processing difficulties at home.

It can be helpful to set up specific times for sensory activities so the child knows what and when to expect them. By engaging in these activities before being asked to focus, it can often make it easier for a child to attend to a task or socialize appropriately.

Sensory-Seeking Behaviors in Adults

For adults who engage in sensory-seeking behaviors, awareness is also key. It is beneficial for the adult and people around them to know what the sensory-seeking behaviors are, why they are occurring, and how to help manage them appropriately. 

Once again safety is paramount. Sensory-seeking behaviors that lead to self-harm, property damage, or danger to others need to be promptly addressed.

Lap pads, weighted blankets, and tactile objects can help an adult seeking sensations to calm down and better focus. Environmental modifications are useful too. 

Occupational therapy and a sensory diet can be beneficial to manage sensory-seeking behaviors in adults. Skills training and therapy sessions can also teach coping mechanisms and tools for improving daily life functioning while helping to process sensory input.