In my house this weekend, my son was a human (LOUD!) bumper car. Despite all of my refined calming and redirecting techniques, the past few days brought loud screams interspersed with crashing into walls, family members, doors, mirrors, and repeated jumping and falling onto the floor. Ironically, light touches and loud noises from any other source but his own mouth send him into immediate meltdown. How can that be? How can crashing and tight squeezes feel great but a hand on his shoulder make him recoil as if he were being branded with a hot iron?
It can actually be very common for children with Sensory Processing issues to be both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. How confusing and frustrating it can be!
What is sensory seeking?
As I’ve written before, Sensory Integration is the ability of the brain to detect, modulate, discriminate, and integrate the three special sensory systems – tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), and proprioceptive (body awareness). Although these sensory systems are less familiar than the five senses we all learned about as children, they are critical in order for humans to experience, interpret, and respond to their environment appropriately.
Sensory seeking occurs when a child’s nervous system is under-responsive to the information being received by the brain, so they continually seek intense sensory experiences for an extended time period to compensate. Some typical sensory seeking behaviors include:
- Decreased response to pain
- Crashing and banging into things
- Craves “tight squeezes” or bear hugs others a lot
- Poor body awareness – clumsiness, touching objects or others too hard or too often
- Staying in a soiled diaper or underpants
What is sensory avoiding?
Children with sensory avoidant behavior commonly have nervous systems that are overly responsive to sensation, which can trigger “fight or flight” responses to sensory stimuli. They may demonstrate some of these behaviors:
- Withdrawing from touch
- Motion sickness, fear of heights
- Anxious in over-stimulating environments (public places such as malls, playgrounds, etc.)
- Picky eater – avoidance of certain textured foods, sensitive to food smells or temperatures
- Doesn’t like being messy and avoids mud, dirt, messy foods
- Struggles with self-care activities; will only wear certain types of material for clothing and or wear clothing in a particular way; complains about hair brushing, tooth brushing, and hair cutting.
If your child is like mine, we can relate to almost everything in both lists! However, I did have some success alleviating some of the crashing and screaming while we were in public, and I wanted to share what worked with you.
Things that helped
There’s nothing more frightening than standing in line at the grocery store and having your child uncontrollably scream crash into displays, climb on counters, and swing off things that are not meant to be swung from! OY! When this state of sensory seeking is reached, reasoning attempts fly out the window.
While we were out I offered some tight squeezes, head and shoulder pressure, and “contests” (bet you can’t crab walk to that bench and back in 2 minutes!). These did not stop the behaviors entirely but offered some relief to his body and allowed me a few more minutes to finish our errand. It is good to carry a weighted backpack in the car as an emergency sensory-seeking tool to help get you through a situation like that as well!
Once we got home, I was able to isolate him to a quiet room and really pay attention to what his body was craving. We used blanket rolling, full body pressure on a giant yoga ball while he was lying face-down, spinning, and our newest trick: wrapping a rolling pin in large bubble wrap and rolling it over his back! I then gave him some time in his tent with a digital timer. Watching the numbers count down always calms him. It was important that he knew it was not time out for misbehaving, rather a break that would help him.
Other tools I love for sensory avoidance behaviors:
- Noise-blocking headphones
- Personal games to keep him focused
- Favorite healthy snacks
- Nature sounds on my iPhone
- Wubbzy music
- An escape plan!
What things help your child cope with sensory input?