The alarm goes off and before you could roll over to hit the snooze button, your child dashes into your room full speed, ready to take over the world. Your child jumps on your bed, up and down, up and down, wanting breakfast. Your child doesn’t just ask once. It begins to sound like a broken record playing in your room. You get up to meet your child’s needs. Instead of walking down the stairs as any normal child would, your child slides down the banister on ROLLER BLADES!!!!
Ok… Ok. That’s a bit wild, but you see the picture I’m painting here. This child has gone wild.
Do you have a child that always seems to keep moving? I mean literally. They keep on moving and moving and moving; having a hard time keeping still. Every movement seems forceful, extra and overly stimulating.
This sounds like a sensory seeking child…
Sensory seeking children are always looking for ways to feed their malnourished nervous systems. They are looking for high impact activities to get the input needed. These children are known to be hyperactive and impulsive, and they are commonly labeled as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). If these children are able to get enough of the sensory input they yearn for, they more than likely will be able to calm down and focus.
A 2009 study found that 1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that make it hard to learn and function in school. While sensory processing issues are often seen in autistic children, they can also be found in those with ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and other developmental delays—or with no other diagnosis at all.
Children who are sensory seeking manifest behaviors through the 7 sensory systems:
- Tactile system (Touch)
- Gustatory/oral system (Taste)
- Olfactory (Smell)
- Auditory (Hearing)
- Visual system (Sight)
- Vestibular system (Movement)
- Proprioceptive system (Body awareness)
Sensory seeking is just one component of sensory processing disorders. Sensory processing difficulties (SPD) were first recognized by occupational therapist Dr. A. Jean Ayres in the 1970s. Dr. Ayres commenced the idea that certain people’s brains cannot process all the information coming in through the seven senses.
Dr. Ayres included the “internal” senses of body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular) in her explanation of sensory processing. When the brain is unable to combine all the information coming in at once, it is difficult to make sense of anything.
So what are these “internal senses” Dr. Ayres opened our world to?
Proprioceptive receptors are actually located in the joints and ligaments, and they allow for motor control and posture. The proprioceptive system communicates to the brain where the body is in relation to other objects and how to move.
The vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear, and they tell the brain where the body is in space by providing the information related to movement and head position. It is vital to know that balance and coordination are dependent upon the vestibular system (SIGN, 2017).
How can I tell if my child is sensory seeking?
Before homeschooling, my 2 eldest children went to school. My girl was in pre-K at the time, and I remember going to a parent teacher conference, and the teacher telling me that my child had difficulty sitting and focusing on her work. She was easily distracted, always moving and always talking. I listened, but thought to myself that was typical behavior of a 4 year old. The following year I began homeschooling, and I had a firsthand experience of what her Pre-K teacher was explaining to me. Except it seemed worse! I had a hard time getting my girl to sit still. She was always running, jumping, crashing into things, always rubbing my leg, just in general always touching something. It’s so funny, because being an OT, I should have seen the signs…but I missed it. I kept asking myself, “What is wrong with my child?” I kept redirecting her, telling her to sit down, and putting her on time out. It wasn’t helping. AND THEN…it hit me… My child is sensory seeking!!!
Sensory seeking behaviors can manifest in many different ways.
C.S. Kranowitz, author of “The Out of Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder” provides ample examples of sensory seeking behaviors:
- Seeking dirty/messy play
- Splashing in mud
- Dumping toy bins and rummaging through them aimlessly
- Chewing on objects or clothing
- Rubbing against walls, furniture and people
- Loves spinning in circles, constantly moving
- Fidgets, has difficulty sitting still
- Frequently wants bear hugs
- Seeks visually stimulating screens, shiny objects, strobe lights, or sunlight
- Loves loud noises, TV or music volume
- Problems sleeping
- Enjoys strong odors, even unattractive ones
- May lick or taste inedible objects and prefers spicy or hot foods
- Frequently attempt to engage in rough play, such as wrestling
So, here I have my child, seeking sensory input. This was a problem because it was affecting her ability to focus and learn while being schooled. Being active is a typical characteristic of children, but it poses a problem when they can’t turn it off sort to speak. So, I pulled out my occupational therapy expertise and I started working with my child. I had her do some of her school work standing, gave her frequent jumping breaks, where I allowed her to jump on the trampoline for 3-5 minutes at a time, and I also gave her crunchy snacks to eat during home school. These activities helped her to focus better and for longer periods of time.
You may be wondering, why do these activities help?
The theory behind sensory seeking behaviors is that the child is seeking input to reach a neurological threshold where the brain/nervous systems are satiated. Once they reach that threshold, the child can then calm down. A child is constantly wired if they are not receiving adequate input to achieve satiation— hence they keep on going and going.
I remember when I worked at a Pediatric clinic, and one of the children I saw was a 12 year old boy who was very sensory seeking. I recall spinning him on a tire swing for 15 minutes of our 30 minutes session to get him to calm down to focus on our schoolwork activities. Some children need more input than others to reach their threshold, but once they are satiated, you will begin to see a difference in their ability to focus.
There are so many activities that can be incorporated into life to help feed children the adequate input that is needed to help them calm down.
STAR Institute for sensory processing disorders provides a list of activities that can be incorporated into everyday life that may assist the sensory seeking child. Before I share these ideas, it is important to note that there is no cookie cutter solution, or one size fits all. You have to know your child, know what they like, and what they can tolerate. It is also recommended to consult your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns and they can direct you to the right professionals to help you.
Incorporating Sensory Input into Daily Activities
Bath time: Scrub with washcloth or bath brush, try a variety of soaps and lotions for bathing, play on the wall with shaving cream or bathing foam, rub body with lotion after bath time (deep massage), sprinkle powder onto body and brush or rub into skin.
Bath time is an opportunity where deep pressure can be applied to the body through textured washcloths or even with using a bath brush. There are soaps with a scrub like consistency that can also provide more input to a sensory seeking child. On a personal note, I have used shaving cream during bath time with all my children, but my sensory seeking child did demonstrate calmer behaviors at the end of her bath. Giving her that time to be really seemed to relax her.
Meal preparation or baking: Let your child mix ingredients, especially the thick ones that will really work those muscles. Let child mix and roll dough and push flat. Allow child to help you carry pots and pans, bowls of water or ingredients (with supervision, of course). Let your child tenderize meat with the meat mallet.
This is a form of heavy work. Any work that gives sufficient input to the muscles and joints really help sensory seeking children to fill up their tanks reducing their cravings. This is also why I use jumping on a trampoline as it has the same effect (giving input to the muscles and joints)
Grocery shopping: Have your child push the heavy cart (as long as the weight is within their capability). Let your child help carry heavy groceries and help put them away.
Here it is again: Heavy work!
Mealtime: Encourage eating of chewy foods and drinking out of a straw. Try having your child sit on an air cushion to allow some movement. A weighted lap blanket may be helpful as well.
Chewy foods require more work for those muscles of mastication, therefore giving the body more input. It’s so funny, because as I write this I realize that my daughter LOVES chewy foods such as bagels, and pizza!!!
Household chores: Allow the child to help with the vacuuming or moving the furniture. Let the child help carry the laundry basket or the detergent. Let the child help with digging for gardening or landscaping.
This is one practical area where you can help your child meet their sensory threshold needs while at the same time teaching them homemaking skills. My daughter uses our big Kirby vacuum cleaner to vacuum the classroom, which gives great impact to her joints and muscles as she pushes against the resistance of the carpet. She also has learned how to VACUUM!
Playtime: Reading books in a rocking chair or bean-bag chair may be beneficial. You can help your child make up obstacle courses in the house or yard using crawling, jumping, hopping, skipping, rolling, etc. Listen to soft music. Play the sandwich game (child lies in between two pillows and pretends to be the sandwich, while you provide pressure to the top pillow to the child’s desired amount). Ask them “harder or softer?” as you push on the pillow. Some children will like much more pressure than you would expect. You can also go for a neighborhood walk with a wagon and have your child pull it (make it semi-heavy by loading it with something the child would like to pull around). You can do the same with a baby-doll carriage. Swimming in a pool is a wonderful activity if you have that available, as are horseback riding and bowling. Mini or full-size trampolines are excellent for providing sensory input as well. Make sure the child is using them safely. Sandboxes, or big containers of beans, or popcorn kernels can be fun play-boxes too, if you add small cars, shovels, cups, etc.
All of these playtime activities are great for the sensory seeking child. These activities can also be incorporated during learning moments. For example, when I was treating children at my old job, I designed an activity where my child was a hot dog all rolled up in a soft pillowed mat, and the child had to roll from one end of the room to the other taking a puzzle piece from one side to the other to complete it. While the child was rolling, I was applying pressure to the pillowed mat, which was giving input to my sensory seeking child. After we completed the puzzle, we would sit at the table and work on handwriting (on an antigravity surface).
Errands and appointments: Before visiting the dentist or hairdresser try deep massage to the head or scalp (if tolerated), or try having your child wear a weighted hat. Try chewy foods or vibration to the mouth with an electric toothbrush. Let your child wear a heavy backpack (weighted to their liking with books and with the straps padded as needed). Be sure to give the child ample warning before any changes in routine or any unscheduled trips or errands. Many children with SPD need predictability.
This is a good recommendation for parents if you have to go out and need your child to focus, attend, and stay calm.
Even though “kids go wild” on an everyday basis, even those who have difficulty controlling their sensory cravings need these moments. I hope that the information here provides you with a greater understanding of sensory seeking, as well as with options on how you can help your child to modulate themselves. As children grow, they learn and understand themselves better.
As previously mentioned, it is recommended to consult your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns, and they can direct you to the right professionals to help you.
SIGN (2017). Sensory Integration Global Network. Resources/Parents. Retrieved on March 16, 2017 from https://www.siglobalnetwork.org/2-parents-resources-2