More, More, Too Much: Understanding Sensory Seeking

A young boy sitting at his desk in school writing on a piece of paper. Other classmates are doing similarly in the background.

Put yourself in this situation: you just received a note from your child’s teacher, and your heart sinks as you read the description given.

You know it to be true as you see similar things at home, but you don’t know what to do…and now the pressure from the school overwhelms you.

The teacher shares that your child:

  • Won’t stop talking and gets right into the faces of others when speaking.
  • Can’t sit still during circle time, always spinning and jumping around.
  • Bumps into others in line, and often runs into the walls when in gym class.
  • Frequently breaks crayons from pushing down so hard when coloring.
  • Is always talking with an “outside voice.”
  • Has fallen behind in skills such as cutting, writing letters, and keeping up with peers in sports.
  • Is a messy eater, usually unaware of the food left on the hands, face, or clothing.

You’re filled with guilt, as you fear you’ve failed as a parent by not being able to “control” this behavior.

But is it simple behavior, or is there something else going on?

Understanding sensory seeking behaviors

Sensory processing is your brain’s way of assessing how the input from your environment is affecting your body.

When a person is unable to process environmental input effectively, he or she will react to the input that they are perceiving with either exaggerated or diminished motor and behavioral responses; when this occurs, it’s known as sensory processing disorder.

One manifestation of sensory processing disorder is sensory seeking.

What is sensory seeking?

Sensory seeking could be likened to cooking and eating spicy food.

Someone who is processing sensory input effectively will use just the right amount of spice to make the food enjoyable to eat without being too hot to tolerate.

On the other hand, sensory seekers are unable to taste the food unless they add much more spice than others; however, without help in knowing how much to put on, they will often put on too much spice and then react in distress to eating this “over-spiced” food.

Children who are sensory seekers have less awareness of how their bodies are moving and less awareness of when they’re touched or when they touch objects or people.

As a result, they’ll seek more input in order to feel what they are touching, or they’ll seek more movement in order to better know where their arms and legs are in relation to one another and how to effectively move them.

Until they’re able to perceive how their body moves, they’ll appear clumsy, uncoordinated, and have poor balance.

Because they have a decreased awareness of sensory input, they also need more input in order to pay attention; however, they only know that they need more input and often will seek too much input.

This over-seeking results in even less ability to pay attention, possible distress, less opportunities to interact with friends, and more disciplinary action from those who do not understand sensory processing difficulties as they relate to sensory seeking.

The problem is that they do not know how to seek the input effectively for optimal attention and participation.

A pediatric occupational therapist can help assess how sensory processing is affecting your child.

What are some symptoms of being a sensory seeker?

Common symptoms of sensory seeking include:

  • Watching as others move around the room
  • Constantly touching people or objects
  • Being unable to sit still
  • Constantly being on the go
  • Jumping, spinning, or rocking
  • Fidgeting with anything within reach
  • Frequently picking at fingers
  • Taking risks on the playground
  • Falling on purpose without regard to safety
  • Seeking to smell both food and non-food items
  • Mouthing non-food items

How are sensory seeking behaviors treated?

Those who are having trouble seeking sensory input effectively can be treated through occupational therapy, which will help them interact with their environment more successfully.

At South Shore Health, our pediatric occupational therapists are skilled at assessing both your child’s sensory system and responses to changes in his or her environments.

As part of an assessment, a pediatric occupational therapist will identify how your child is seeking sensory input, determine how that seeking impacts movement/coordination, and what the optimal seeking level would be for your child.

After the assessment has been completed, the therapist will develop a treatment plan personalized to each child’s unique needs.

This treatment will help manage your child’s sensory processing and will improve his or her ability to participate in childhood activities.

How can I get treatment for my child’s sensory seeking?

If you suspect that your child may be seeking sensory input excessively, you should first discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.

If your pediatrician determines that sensory seeking behaviors are present, he or she will refer you and your child for an occupational therapy evaluation for sensory processing.

From there, an occupational therapist will work with you and your child to assess the extent of his/her sensory seeking and to begin treatment.

Julie Garber, OT is a pediatric occupational therapist at South Shore Health.

Learn more about our Pediatric Rehabilitation and Occupational Therapy programs.