The difference between kids who are sensory seekers and those that are sensory avoiders is simply that kids who are the seekers have sensory systems that have a higher threshold before information can be perceived. They need more input to decipher the message they are trying to understand. On the other hand, sensory avoiders have lower sensory thresholds. A small amount of signal causes them to have a big reaction. Because of this, they avoid stimulation because it overwhelms them. Both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders may respond with hyperactive behaviors but for different reasons. One is seeking more input and running toward the stimulus while the other is seeking less input and running away from the stimulus. It is important to note that some kids are a combination of sensory seekers and sensory avoiders depending on their level of arousal and ability to self-regulate. Sensory avoiders may like firm pressure on their skin because it helps them calm down when they are over stimulated. These kids are often very ticklish, and find clothing, socks, and shoes itchy or irritating, especially when there are tags or seams that rub against them. They often cry easily, do not like being touched, prefer quieter surroundings, and are easily startled by sudden, unexpected sights or sounds.
Sensory seekers are quite the opposite. They may deliberately crash into things or throw themselves on the floor to get more physical information, often having a higher pain tolerance. Understanding “how soft is soft” or “how hard is hard” can be difficult for them to differentiate, often resulting in accidentally hurting another or breaking a toy. These children may have difficulty understanding boundaries, constantly hanging on others or touching them. They frequently have the need to chew on things, where they get a lot of input from their jaw muscles, which are extremely strong. Some activities parents can do at home for sensory seekers is to provide them with the extra input they need. Offering chewy foods, or foods that are sour or spicy can stimulate taste and proprioception (information we get from our muscles and joints). Using a weighted blanket, weighted toy, or weighted vest can help, too. Doing Embracing Squeezes, deep pressure squeezes, up the child’s arms and legs can also be calming. Having them squeeze a raquet ball or other rubbery object can help too. Wearing tight fitting, elasticized, clothing can also provide the input they desire. These children love being squished! Make a “Johnny sandwich” with Johnny between mom and dad in a strong, loving squeeze. Cover these kids with pillows and squish down on them (not too hard!). Play tug-o-war using an old towel. Take them to the park and let them climb a tree or roll down a hill.
Demonstrate The Differences
For our sensory avoiders, introduction to a variety of sensory experiences is necessary but perhaps, try offering only one type of stimulus at a time in a calmer, quieter setting. For example, playing with dry rice or sand, allows the child to get the tactile input to their hands. Entice them to dig for buried treasure by hiding a few coins in the rice or sand. Water play can also be fun with all sorts of containers for pouring water, feeling it flow down, and hearing it splash.