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How can you treat sensory-seeking behavior?

Talk with any parent, therapist, teacher, or other special education professionals about autism, and it won’t take long before sensory-seeking behaviors come up in the conversation.  As a whole, this entire class of responses can be some of the most intriguing and the most concerning for families.  Developing the skills and tools to recognize sensory-seeking behaviors in autism spectrum disorders is one of the first steps in learning how to treat sensory-seeking behaviors.

What is sensory-seeking behavior?

Sensory-seeking behavior is a term used to describe a large class of responses that occur to meet a sensory need.  Individuals engage in sensory-seeking as a way to obtain feedback from the environment.  No two individuals demonstrate the same sensory-seeking behaviors.  Some children and adults with autism have lots of sensory-seeking behaviors—others have only a few or display them only in certain situations.

Since the goal of sensory-seeking behaviors is to obtain some form of feedback from the environment, they can involve lots of different parts of the body. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, or body movements can all trigger sensory issues.

Some examples include:

  • Body movements (e.g., hand-flapping, covering the ears, hair twirling)
  • Providing pressure or squeezing to certain parts of the body
  • Waving or placing objects near the eyes
  • Covering the eyes to avoid bright lights or patterns
  • Chewing on objects or clothing
  • Avoiding perfumes, lotions, or air fresheners
  • Strong aversions to specific food textures.

These are just a few examples of sensory-seeking, and certainly not an exhaustive list.  What’s important to know is that all sensory-seeking behaviors have one thing in common.  They’re likely to happen regardless of social variables.   If given instruction or a social task, a sensory-seeking response may occur.  But it may also happen without others present at all.

How are Sensory-Seeking and Autism related?

Many people wonder why sensory-seeking behavior and autism seem to go hand-in-hand.  Since 2013, to receive a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder from a medical professional, an individual must demonstrate persistent repetitive or ritualistic behaviors.  Often, these behaviors come in the form of sensory-seeking responses.  While it’s not required for all individuals with autism to engage in sensory-seeking, many do at different points in time.

What about Sensory Processing Disorder?

As you encounter research and advice on treating sensory-seeking behaviors at home, you may also read about Sensory Processing Disorder.  While not an official diagnosis made by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other medical professionals, Sensory Processing Disorder describes problem behavior and difficulties with over-sensitivity to some environmental stimuli and under-sensitivity to others.  Many parents of children with sensory-seeking behaviors believe that it relates to their child’s inability to respond appropriately to sensory feedback in the environment. Many of these children also have autism or other developmental disorders.  If you suspect that your child may have autism or sensory processing issues, consult a professional for an evaluation and diagnosis.

Are sensory seeking behaviors ‘bad’ or need to be treated?

One of the growing debates in the Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder communities revolves around sensory-seeking behaviors and whether they should or should not address them.  Some advocates believe sensory-seeking behaviors help individuals express themselves or meet their needs in the environment.  Others believe sensory-seeking behaviors are harmful, especially when they interfere with learning or socializing with friends.  Concerns also arise when sensory-seeking becomes dangerous, like in the case of self-injury or pica.

Like most things related to autism, there’s a spectrum of different answers to the question of whether to intervene with a sensory-seeking behavior. In most cases, individualizing the decision to treat sensory-seeking at home, a clinic, or in school leads to better outcomes.  The decision should account for individual preferences, the severity of the behavior, and the values of a family.

Treating Sensory-Seeking Behaviors At Home

If you evaluate that your child’s sensory-seeking behaviors are creating barriers to learning and may need intervention, below are some steps to help you assess the best way to respond:

  • Step One: Observe your child.  The first step in addressing sensory-seeking behaviors at home is to observe a child’s sensory seeking behaviors.  Before beginning to treat sensory-seeking, parents should be able to answer questions like: When does my child engage in sensory-seeking behavior?  Do my child’s actions function to seeking out sensory feedback or to stop some form of sensory input from happening? Having a firm understanding of when the sensory-seeking responses are likely to occur along with triggers and supports can help better develop a sensory-seeking behavior plan.
  • Step Two: Determine a goal. Children on the autism spectrum engage in a variety of different profiles of sensory seeking behavior.  Because no two children are the same, every goal about treating sensory-seeking behaviors at home should adapt to that child and family’s needs.  After observing your child, set a goal about how you’d like to change your child’s sensory-seeking behaviors.  Depending on factors like safety, disruption to others, disruption to learning new skills, and your family’s values, you may decide sensory-seeking can occur in a more appropriate form, at some times but not others, or not at all.
  • Step Three: Decide on an intervention. If you’ve determined that your child’s sensory-seeking requires intervention, there are several options for addressing the behavior.  Some of these include:
    • Make environmental accommodations. If something as simple as turning down music or dimming lights helps reduce the trigger, it’s a better solution than a complex intervention.
    • Try a sensory diet, or provide regular access to sensory-seeking activities in a safer or more appropriate form.
    • Give access to sensory-seeking activities after learning activities in a ‘first…then…” format.
    • Teach your child to ask for sensory needs rather than use inappropriate behavior.
    • Use a visual schedule to help a child understand when sensory input is available.
    • For aversive situations that can’t be changed, practice in small, gradual steps working up to tolerating more of the sensory input.
  • Step Four: Evaluate and adjust. Many parents of children with autism find that sensory-seeking behaviors change over time, sometimes rapidly.  Just as a goal and intervention are successful, a new response appears, or the behavior shifts to a slightly different form.  These ongoing changes require parents to continue to observe their child’s behavior and adjust dynamically.

Finally, while many families find success in treating sensory-seeking behaviors at home, others may need professional support.  Sensory-seeking behaviors are uniquely complex.  The assistance of a skilled professional with experience in sensory-related interventions can help provide your child with the best possible outcomes.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

February 2020

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