ASD 101: Meeting Sensory Seeking Needs
Hello my brave friends! How are you doing lately? Things seem to be getting back to “normal,” and we made it through the year of chaos. It definitely isn’t the same as last year, and shutdown is still looming on the not-so-distant perimeter as something that might happen again.
Because of this, and because travel is mostly still restricted, I wanted to share some of my favorite activities to maintain sanity when I can’t travel or leave the house. If you follow me on social media, then you’ll have seen the posts I wrote promising to share some specific types of movement for each type of sensory issue. Yes that’s right - there are different types of sensory needs.
There’s 4, to be exact. And did you know? Sensory activities won’t help you or your child unless you are matching the specific activity to the specific sensory need. If you’re doing a sensory seeking activity but you’re actually sensory avoidant, then you’re actually putting yourself in more distress and doing more harm than good. But what do avoidant and seeking mean? And what are the other two types of sensory needs?
As I mentioned on Facebook and Instagram, you don’t have to be neurodivergent to have sensory needs. So instead of only sharing what I do when I am sensory seeking, I decided to share suggestions and activities for all of the sensory needs, because I require different things at different times. This blog will explain what the 4 needs are, and will share activities for sensory seeking needs (you can scroll down if that’s all you require right now). Keep your eye out for my upcoming blogs about the other three kinds. If you want to make sure you don’t miss it, sign up for my email newsletter HERE. (Enter your email in the pop up box that appears. As a bonus you'll receive the free gift, Is Your Body Your Buddy? PDF!) The four types of sensory needs are:
Avoidant means avoiding sensation and input, seeking means seeking out sensation and sensory input, but the last two might be less clear. To share a brief explanation of sensory needs 3 & 4, low registration means normal sensory input does not register. This is when someone doesn't notice they are in pain unless they visually see blood, or someone who doesn't notice they have to go to the bathroom until they can´t hold it anymore. They are often seen as lazy or unmotivated and have trouble doing things with intense external motivators.
Varied is the most common type of sensory need - it’s when someone has a combination of the other types of sensory needs, and has different requirements in different situations. This means someone might be sensory avoidant in certain situations but sensory seeking in others. An example of this is someone who avoids very loud music in a crowd, but blasts the music in their car. Another example is someone who avoids certain textures they dislike, but actively seeks textures they really enjoy (like a fluffy pillow). This is also someone who avoids being touched, but runs their hands along the wall or store items to see what they feel like. There are a million combinations of this as every individual is unique. This is why it’s important to know your specific needs.
Now let’s get back to the main point of this blog - meeting your sensory seeking requirements when normal businesses and activities are not fully open. I mentioned on social media that one way I fulfilled my sensory seeking needs was travel. This is a great example of a varied combination of sensory needs. I enjoyed traveling - putting myself in a new environment, seeing new things, actively seeking out new sensory input, but I do not like that all the time. My favorite part about travel is you control when it ends. I get to return to my cozy, quiet home for some sensory avoidance that looks like a lot of alone time and not leaving the house :) .
So without further adieu, I’d like to lessen that burden just a little bit by sharing some of my favorite activities to address sensory seeking needs. How does it get even better than that?
Start with the senses. Are there sensations you enjoy and seek out, such as fluffy blankets? Are there sounds you enjoy or despise? Start with what you enjoy and avoid what you don’t. These needs come from the senses, so follow what you naturally would or are already seeking.
Don’t force yourself or anyone else to sit on the couch and not move. This will only worsen the sensory seeking issue. However, be smart and safe as well. Some common unresolved sensory seeking side effects are driving recklessly or reckless behavior, throwing your body around, exercising too hard and getting hurt, or crashing into things. This may sound unlikely, but a friend of mine said her preteen boy regularly crashes into things on purpose just for the sensation! (Fortunately, he chooses soft surfaces like the couch and trampoline.) However, to resolve this, create organized activities. Like I wrote online, an obstacle course inside the house or in the backyard are a great way to do this.
I also mentioned blast some loud music - this works for my friend but for others, it actually increases and heightens their sensory seeking. You might have to play around with this to figure out what works. Intense activity may also heighten the seeking. If this is the case, set a start and stop time so you or the child can mentally wind down when the activity is over.
Resistance and deep pressure can be more calming if the above activities are too stimulating. Think resistance bands, weighted blankets when relaxing, deep hugs, rope pulling, and other strenuous but slow activities.
You might be wondering how this is different from a neurotypical person’s likes and dislikes, or aversions and preferences. This is a complicated thing to try to answer. A lot of people lie somewhere on the spectrum where even if they do not have ADHD, ASD, or one of the other neurodivergent conditions, they can have sensory needs ranging from light to severe. However, you can think of the main difference as the way the sensations are processed. For those who are neurodivergent, the sensations are processed much more intensely and feel more like life and death than like and dislike. A neurotypical person might be unmotivated or have a “lazy” personality, but they are not physically unable to perform tasks because they are not getting the sensory input their brains require due to executive dysfunction issues caused by ADHD, ASD, etc.
This is where OTs, or occupational therapists come in - they expertly assess the individual’s sensory needs and create a “sensory diet,” or a therapy plan of specific sensory activities to address the person or child’s sensory requirements. Because they are highly trained, they are able to assess in hours what it might take someone months and months to figure out. It’s sort of like doing a renovation by yourself versus hiring the experts - you could probably figure it out, but it would take you much longer, you’d have to look up every step, and you’d probably make a lot of mistakes along the way. Bringing in an expert saves time and let’s be honest - when you or your child are shut down or having trouble performing daily tasks because of unmet sensory needs, you don’t have months.
I hope t