Sensory Avoiding vs. Sensory Seeking Behaviours in Children

Sensory integration is a process whereby the brain organises and interprets sensory experiences. Sensory experiences include touch, taste, smell, sight, movement and body awareness.

Those who suffer from sensory processing issues have trouble organising or processing information coming in through their senses. Sensory processing issues are also known as sensory integration disorders or sensory integration dysfunction. 

People with sensory integration disorder can be over-sensitive, under-sensitive or both towards sensory inputs. For over-sensitive individuals sensory input can be too overwhelming due to which they might try to avoid any sort of sensory stimulation. On the other hand, individuals who are under-sensitive to sensory input might be more seeking of sensory stimulations. 

What factors affect the sensory integration of a child? 

There are no absolute known causes or risk factors of sensory processing issues. However, family history of similar disorders and birth complications might make it more likely for a child to develop sensory processing issues. 

Sensory integration issues are most commonly associated with OCD, ADHD, ASD and other developmental delays. These conditions are not a cause of sensory processing issues but have been seen as co-occurring with it. 

What do difficulties with sensory integration most commonly look like?

People with sensory processing issues might be sensory avoiding or sensory seeking.

Sensory Avoiding

If a child is over-sensitive to sensory inputs and gets easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, they are more likely to be sensory avoiding. In this case they are more likely to react in the following ways when exposed to any type of sensory input:

  • Easily overwhelmed by people
  • Seeks out less noisy or crowded places
  • Easily bothered by bright lights and loud/sudden noises 
  • Refuses to wear clothes that are slightly uncomfortable
  • Avoid touching other people  
  • Have trouble trying new things (foods, places)
  • Have a strong reaction to the texture or smell of certain foods
  • Minute changes to their environment might upset them to large extent
Sensory Seeking

Kids who are under sensitive to sensory input seek sensory stimulation. Here are some signs you might see in a child who is under-sensitive to sensory inputs:

  • Constantly touches things
  • Takes physical risks while playing
  • Have a higher pain threshold
  • Is constantly squirming and fidgeting
  • Is more likely to invade other people’s personal space
  • Gets easily distracted
  • Is more accident prone
  • Is more clumsy 

Signs and symptoms of sensory processing issues are not limited to the five major senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. It also includes lesser-known senses such as interception (helps you understand and feel what’s going on in your body), proprioception (body awareness or a sense that tell us where our body parts are) and the vestibular sense (helps keep you stable and upright)

Treatment for sensory processing issues?

Sensory processing issues are usually treated through therapy. Therapy sessions led by a trained therapist can help children manage the challenges they are facing. There are different types of therapy currently being used to treat sensory processing issues:

  1. Sensory integration therapy
    This type of therapy teaches a child to experience stimuli without feeling overwhelmed through different types of activities. A therapist can help a child deal with different sensory stimuli and help them formulate regular, everyday responses towards sensory inputs. 
  2. Sensory diet
    A sensory diet is not a typical food diet but consists of sensory activities for children. Sensory diet is mostly customised based on a child’s needs and might include activities such as allocate time for walking every other hour or listening to music while working.
  3. Occupational therapy
    A child might also need occupational therapy to help with symptoms related to sensory processing issues. OT can help with fine motor skills, gross motor skills and teach everyday skills to children with sensory processing issues. 
Sensory-friendly games and activities for home
  • Scratch-and-Sniff Painting
    Scratch-and-sniff painting appeals to children’s tactile and olfactory senses. Have the children mix a few drops of extracts such as peppermint or orange etc. to paint. Let your child paint on cardboard or heavy paper. Once the painting is complete and dry, one can rub their fingertip over it to reactivate the smell.
  • Play-Doh
    Using clay or play doh strengthens fine motor skills. Try hiding small objects in a ball of dough for your child to find or ask them to roll it or make things out of the dough. 
  • Twister
    This classic game is a great way for kids to improve proprioceptive and vestibular senses. 
  • Music and Dance Party
    For kids who are sensory seeking a simple dance party can prove to be helpful. Put together a child-friendly playlist and let them dance to it. 
    In addition to that they can make their own music at home as well to seek auditory and tactile stimulation. By using things at home such as string and shoeboxes, or pots and pans with a spoon etc. different sounds can be produced by a child. 
  • Cook or bake food
    This is most likely to appeal to a child’s tactile and olfactory senses. Kneading dough or rolling it to form round cookies will allow them to work with their own hands. 


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