One term that comes up quite often is the phrase sensory seekers. When we refer to sensory seeking individuals, we simply are talking about the individual with a sensory system that craves more sensory input. Sensory seekers will typically have a sensory processing system with differences in sensory modulation. This results in diminished responsiveness and the sensory seeking behaviors that we see as a self-regulation tactic or need.
What is a sensory Seeker?
You might have heard the term “sensory seeker”…but what does this mean exactly?
A sensory seeker is a term used to describe individuals who have a heightened need for sensory input, or someone who seeks out different types of sensory experiences to fulfill this need.
Sensory seeking can manifest in different ways depending on the individual and can include seeking out things like loud noises, bright lights, fast movements, rough textures, strong smells, or intense tastes.
Sensory seeking behavior is often seen in individuals with sensory processing disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but this sensory need can occur without diagnosis of a particular integrodifference, as well.
Sensory seeking can serve as a way to regulate the nervous system and increase alertness and arousal levels. However, it can also be challenging for individuals who have difficulty managing their sensory experiences or who struggle with sensory overload.
Sensory seeking behaviors typically present in the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, although we may see other systems involved, including visual, taste, touch, auditory, and interoceptive.
Typically the sensory seeking individual has other common actions or behaviors as a result of sensory needs. These can include:
- Emotional regulation
- Difficulty paying attention to the task at hand
- High emotional reactivity
- Poor active attention to the environment
- Modulation challenges
- Praxis difficulties
Read more about sensory processing considerations that might be present.
How to Support Sensory Seekers
Sensory seeking individuals require higher levels of input in order to organize their sensory systems. They may require more force or pressure in order to “feel” or recognize certain input.
Sensory seeking strategies typically are calming activities focused on the vestibular and proprioceptive input. A sensory diet is a specific list of activity ideas designed on the needs of a particular individual. The hyposensitive child is one that seeks out sensory stimulation. These kids may benefit from intervals of alerting activities throughout the day in order to keep the child on task and focused.
Sensory Seeker Activities
- Sensory play activities
- Vestibular; slow and rocking forward/back
- Proprioceptive: Active (Child provides input to muscles and joints themselves ie animal walk) versus Passive input (input given to them by others)
- Deep touch; Massage, squish, squash.
- Utilize essential oils in this activity also
- Heavy work
- Burrito blanket
- Compression clothing or weighted vests
- Animal walks
These are just a few ideas that can support a sensory seeking individual.
The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.
The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.
Sensory Seekers during the holidays
The holiday season can absolutely pose challenges for individuals, especially children, with sensory processing difficulties. The disruptions to routine, exposure to different environments, foods, and smells can intensify sensory challenges.
When we consider the definition of a sensory seeker as an individual who actively seeks out or craves sensory input to regulate their nervous system, you can see how the holiday season, with its unique stressors, may impact individuals with sensory processing difficulties, particularly those who are sensory seekers.
Understanding these dynamics is crucial for caregivers, educators, and professionals in the field of occupational therapy to create supportive environments during the holiday season. Strategies such as providing sensory breaks, offering familiar items for comfort, and communicating about individual needs can help individuals with sensory processing difficulties navigate and enjoy holiday celebrations more comfortably.
Let’s break down some key aspects of what the holidays can look like for the sensory seeker:
Altered Routines: Individuals with sensory processing difficulties often rely on consistent routines to manage their sensory experiences. Sensory seekers typically and actively seek sensory input for optimal arousal.
The holidays often bring disruptions to these routines, leading to increased stress and anxiety. Changes in sleep patterns, meal times, and daily activities can be particularly challenging.
This can look like changes in the normal routines during the holidays that disrupt the expected sensory experiences that individuals rely on for regulation. The lack of a predictable schedule may lead to increased seeking behaviors as a way to cope with the stress of the changes.
Different Foods: Sensory seekers may actively seek out specific tastes and smells for sensory satisfaction.
Holiday gatherings with bigger groups of family and friends often involve a variety of foods with distinct textures, tastes, and smells. For children with sensory challenges, this can be very overwhelming! Some individuals may have aversions to certain textures or smells, making it difficult for them to participate in shared meals or enjoy the holiday feast.
The variety of foods and strong smells during the holidays can either be appealing or overwhelming for sensory seekers. They might seek out certain textures or flavors that provide comfort, or conversely, they might find certain scents distressing, leading to heightened seeking behaviors.
Different Homes to Visit: Sensory seekers may actively seek input to regulate arousal levels. They might be used to the sensory input they get from their own home’s couch, comforting items in the home, and regular routines.
Visiting different homes means exposure to unfamiliar environments, which can be overwhelming for individuals with sensory sensitivities. The new sensory stimuli, such as lighting, decorations, and furniture, may trigger discomfort or anxiety.
The festive atmosphere with bright lights, decorations, and increased social interactions can lead to sensory overload. Sensory seekers may intensify their seeking behaviors to modulate their arousal levels and find comfort in the midst of heightened stimulation.
Crowded stores or holiday celebrations:
Sometimes you can plan ahead and avoid crowded shopping areas or the holiday celebration, but other aspects of the holiday season bring crowds and people that just can’t be avoided. Having a travel sensory diet on hand can help for these situations.
And, when visiting different homes or celebrations, it can be overwhelming with the social aspect as well. Sensory seekers may actively seek sensory input during social interactions as a sensory coping mechanism to self regulate.
Increased social gatherings may present both opportunities and challenges for sensory seekers. Some may actively seek social interactions and engagement, while others may find the noise and crowded spaces overwhelming, leading to seeking behaviors or withdrawal.
Different Smells: Holiday scents, like candles, pine trees, or specific foods, can be overpowering for those with sensory sensitivities. Strong or unfamiliar odors may contribute to sensory overload and make it challenging for individuals to engage in social interactions or enjoy the festivities.
For children who are sensory seekers, the heightened sensory input during the holidays may lead to seeking behaviors that can be disruptive. They might engage in repetitive actions or seek out intense sensory experiences to self-regulate, potentially leading to challenges in social situations.
Visiting different homes introduces new sensory stimuli. Sensory seekers might actively explore these environments, seeking out specific sensory experiences. On the flip side, the unfamiliar surroundings could also trigger seeking behaviors as a means of self-soothing or adapting to the changes.
To support individuals with sensory challenges during the holidays, it’s essential to plan ahead, communicate with caregivers and hosts about specific needs, and create a quiet, familiar space for the individual to retreat to if needed. Having sensory impulse control strategies on hand can help.
Understanding and respecting sensory preferences, providing sensory breaks like our Christmas deep breathing exercise, our Christmas sensory stations as a quick movement and breathing break, and offering familiar foods can also contribute to a more comfortable holiday experience. Using some Christmas occupational therapy ideas can help as well, depending on the needs of the individual.
Whether during the holidays or on a typical Tuesday, using self regulation strategies to support sensory and emotional needs is key!
Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to email@example.com.