Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders

I had such a huge response to my post, “What is Sensory Processing Disorder?” that I wanted to talk a little bit more about how it presents itself.

I want to start by talking about Sensory Modulation Disorder – or in basic terms: Sensory Avoiders and Sensory Seekers (for a full definition, click here).

For the purpose of this post, I am going to list sensory seeking and sensory avoidant behaviors, to paint a more accurate picture of what sensory-based behaviors look like. You can consider these 'symptoms' or a 'checklist' but my real goal in posting them is to help parents and caregivers recognize the sensory challenges in the children in their life.  In addition to that, I hope to paint a bigger picture of specifically of the kinds of behaviors Sensory Seekers have, as they seem to be the least understood.

Let's start with Sensory Seekers.

The first person to suggest to me that Gabriel had Sensory Processing Disorder I completely ignored. Technically, I even made fun of her. How stupid was she to suggest my son had sensory issues? My kid wasn’t one of those who covered his ears at every little noise, nope, not my kid. My kid was fine with loud noises, LOVED water, mud, hot salsa and was NOT afraid of anything – OK, besides bees. I had a child that would climb to the tippity top of the playground - -and stand on top of that. No, my kid was not at all adverse to sensory stimuli – as a matter of fact, he couldn’t get enough. I didn’t understand how that could be a sensory processing problem.

When I finally gave in to our psychologist, an embarassing one year later, and read the Out of Sync Child, it became much clearer that my son did indeed have Sensory Processing Disorder and was continually seeking input. I had no idea that SPD included that – I thought that all children with sensory issues were avoiders. I couldn't have been more wrong. But, I think many people still share this misconception.  It is somehow easier to understand kids that avoid input – too much noise, too much touch, too much texture – but for some reason it is much harder to understand kids that can’t get enough. 

Where Avoiders tend to get labeled as 'fussy', 'sensitive', 'picky' or 'spoiled', it is the Seekers that are often considered 'behavior problems', 'hyperactive', 'difficult', 'stubborn', 'coddled', or what many of us parents have heard, "In need of a good spanking."  Yes, most Seekers are accused of needing more discipline, and therefore their parents are blamed for their behavior.  In an effort to educate about this phenomenon, which is as outdated as the "Refrigerator Mom" theory for autism, let's list the behaviors.

Here are some things that you might see a sensory seeker doing:

  • Spinning
  • Climbing too high
  • Climbing everything
  • Crashing into things (people, furniture, walls)
  • Mouthing/licking inedible things (furniture, toys, body)
  • Chewing inedible things (clothing)
  • Eating excessively
  • Constantly wrestling with siblings
  • Touching everything
  • Playing with food
  • Messy eater
  • Overstuffing their mouth
  • Eating spicy/hot foods
  • Under-responsive to pain (‘shakes it off’ quickly)
  • Dumping out toy bins just to look at everything
  • Excessive sensory play (mud, water, soap, etc.)
  • Jumping
  • Pushing
  • Loves running barefoot
  • Chewing on their toothbrush
  • Can’t sit still in their desk
  • Falls out of their chair for no apparent reason
  • Loves loud noises (turns up TV, battery toys against ears, vacuum.)
  • Can’t monitor their own volume (you constantly say, “Stop yelling!”)
  • Smells everything, even bad smells

This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a starting point.

Now let's move on to Sensory Avoiders.

This is probably what jumps quickest to mind when you think of a child with sensory issues: The child with his hands over his ears. But, there is more to it than that.  These are children that have problems with the basics in life: eating, dressing, bathing.  Normal sensation from day to day living interrupts these children's functioning and makes it virtually impossible for them to learn or socialize appropriately. 

Here are some things you might see a sensory avoider doing:

  • Picky eater (preferring one texture or basic flavors)
  • Covering ears at noise (hates vacuum, blender, hand dryers)
  • Avoids touch (not a ‘huggy’ or ‘cuddly’ kid)
  • Hates tags/seams in clothing
  • Won’t wear shoes (or prefers only one shoe type)
  • Avoids messy activities (mud, sand)
  • Avoids art activities like painting or playdoh
  • Walks on toes
  • Doesn’t engage in playground activities (climbing, swinging, etc)
  • Hates a wet/dirty diaper/underwear
  • Dislike people too close
  • Refuse to take a bath/shower or play in the sprinkler
  • Hate water on their face
  • Hate/Refuse to brush their teeth
  • Complain of the smell
  • Complain it is too bright (wanting to wear sunglasses)
  • Over-responsive to pain (everything HURTS!)
  • Avoids/refuses stickers/fake tattoos

There are hundreds more examples (see the "Red Flags for SPD" checklist here), but this gives you an idea of the challenges kids and parents face every day. If your child is not diagnosed with SPD, but has many of these behaviors, please seek a good Occupational Therapist trained in Sensory Integration techniques to consult with your family.

The surprising thing to most people is that although most kids tend to fall primarily on one side or the other, many kids have experiences in both avoiding and seeking.

Sensory issues are on a continuum: Some kids avoid nearly all sensory stimuli, and some kids seek excessive amounts of sensory stimuli. And many kids do a combination of both, depending on where their ‘arousal’ level -- is like a constant balancing act to get the input just right.

Here is an example:

My son Gabriel, is primarily a Seeker, yet often gets ‘over stimulated’ and requires some down time to regroup – to be ‘calm and organized’.

Gabriel will climb anything, eat anything (with hot sauce added), loves deep pressure input and can spin and spin forever. But, at the end of a school day, he is already exhausted and usually is in meltdown at the littlest sound from his brothers -- even a normal speaking voice can cause issue. His body just can’t handle more input. Then, my normally ‘sensory seeking’ kid, is yelling to his brothers to “SHUTUP!” while pressing against his ears so hard that you would think we were blaring an air horn at him. He is displaying sensory avoidant behavior.
The solution for Gabriel is simple: he needs less input to bring himself back to neutral. But the sensory challenges for each child are different, hence the solution for each child is different.  What is constant is the balancing act of trying to control the amount, intensity and duration of sensory input coming into their body. This is no easy task for a child (or parent).

In future posts, I will talk more about how our children (and us as parents) learn to manage the sensory input by using strategies like “How Does Your Engine Run” and by implementing a Sensory Diet for home and school, as well as what happens when our kids do experience too much or too little input (Meltdown/Fight or Flight response).



Amanda said...

Hartley, I want you to know that a couple of weeks ago my sensory seeking son was particularly revved up and I was in tears feeling desperate and alone. I searched online for blogs about SPD and found yours. I cannot thank you enough for providing this incredible resource. God bless you for encouraging and equipping other SPD families. By the way, we got the Ikea egg chair this weekend and my son loves it. I haven't seen him stimming at all since we got it. Thank you again!

Stacey,momof 2 said...

Hartley... you are so clear in your writing- thank you !
As I was reading I was nodding my head-- thanks for taking the words outta my brain and posting them!
yup my son is mostly a seeker-- but then he is also an avoider at what sometimes seems the strangest times.
I'd write more but I need to get some Mommy stuff done

The Henrys said...

Thank you so much for posting this and explaining how kids can be both seekers and avoiders.

My daughter is both. She craves proprioceptive input and is constantly seeking. She loves me to scratch her hands and head. She loves deep pressure and is constantly getting her arms and hands stuck in tight spaces. Lots of times we struggle with getting her unstuck. She always has cuts and bruises on her arms and fingers.

However, she hates anything loud and covers her ears all the time. She hates family gatherings when everyone looks at her. Lately she hates the automatic doors and is scared to go through them. I'm not sure what this is about but think it is the clicking sound they make.

Our biggest problem is when we are driving and have a red light. This somehow confuses her body and is just too much for her. Even as a newborn she hated this. It causes a lot of problems!

Finally, could you suggest a book that talks about how this is not behavior? The school is always telling me what behavior problems my daughter has and I would LOVE to educate them otherwise.

Thanks, Debbi

Gina V said...

My son is reading your blog post over my shoulder. While he nearly always avoids loud sounds, he does nearly everything on your sensory seeking list. He said, "Hey, that's me. Why is she writing about me?" He's 8 and definitely has SPD & is on the autism spectrum (Asperger's). I didn't realize falling out of his chair was sensory seeking (one of his 1st & 2nd grade teacher's biggest complaints.) He has to TOUCH everything (I call him Touchy McToucherson). And will spin forever if left alone.

At least I know he's not that abnormal. :)

Hartley said...

Hi all, Thanks for the comments!

@Amanda -- I am SO touched to know that you have found support here. I know how important that is, and please know you are not alone. Happy to hear about your egg chair -- we LOVE ours too!

@Stacey - What do you mean you don't have time to write more? LOL Thanks for the compliments - hoping this helps many people!

@The Henrys -- I emailed you personally with book info, but for those here, I recommend Lost at School by Dr. Ross Green (author of The Explosive Child) and reading my "Sensory vs. Behavior" post (under favorites tab) and even printing it off for teachers.

@Gina V -- I love that your son can relate! Falling out of the chair is usually due to the vestibular system being off, but once kids realize that it feels good, then the falling on the ground is welcome. Gabriel used to do this A LOT when he was younger, espeically since he got a good laugh from the other kids!

Thanks again all!

tabitha said...

My sensory seeking son Anatoly overwhelmingly meets every item on your seeker list. I had never looked into SPD (about 1.5 yrs ago, when we were in the wondering phase) and when someone sent me the SPD checklist, I had one of those amazing, Aha! moments.

Lora said...

This is a great post, and I agree with another poster--you are a very clear writer. Thanks!

Learning Together at Home said...

Out of our four kids, 2 definitely fit your SPD lists! One is a seeker, the other an avoider. I read the Out of Sync book years ago and yet somehow your post made it a tonne clearer for me! Great job! May I link to your post on my blog? If nothing else than to have the opportunity to reread this one day when I am questioning things. :)

Patty O. said...

Great post!!! It wasn't until I read Lucy Jane Miller's "Sensational Kids" that I understood the difference between sensory seeking and avoidant. And yes, most kids have aspects of both. My son is totally a sensory seeker, but he is super sensitive to textures in food and clothing. Also, not a fan of touching weird textures.

My daughter, who we now suspect also has SPD, is more of an avoider, which just makes our lives so much more complicated....

I love that you explain this, though, because some people, even those who know about SPD, don't realize how widely it can vary. A friend whose son has SPD, doesn't believe my daughter may have it because she doesn't have the same symptoms as her son and mine (who are both seekers). She doesn't realize each kid is so different.

Kris said...

Great post! My son is a seeker and has every symptom listed except spinning. I always get "the look" from people when we are in public and have had people feel the need to "step in" on more than one occasion.

Those are the moments I am filled with self-doubt and wonder what I am doing wrong. Thanks for reminding me how outdated that thinking is. I have to remind myself to hold my son accountable for what he can help and help HIM with what he cannot.

I was completely shocked when someone suggeseted SPD to me about my son - I clearly remember saying "Isn't that the kids who cover their ears?" How far I have come since then!!

Thanks again!!

Amber said...

Awesome, awesome post! My 2 1/2 year old son fits almost every item on the sensory seeking list. We've also come to understand that his toe-walking is a sensory seeking behaviour as well (he gets the proprioceptive input through his metatarsals), though it can also be sensory avoidant for many kids.

Kristi said...

Oh my gosh! I think you just gave me my aha! moment! Amazing information.

Stepping On Cheerios said...

I almost cried when I read your description of how our children are perceived by others.

We just started Speech and OT with my son. He also just failed his hearing test.

I'll be following you!

Katie said...

I stumbled onto your blog via a link. Your sensory seeker list reads like a description of my daughter in every way. She has not be tested or diagnosed and I don't feel like our problems are anything we can't handle (although we definitely get our share of the judging from others for her "extreme" behavior). Should I seek out medical assistance for her? Or do I wait and see if it becomes a big enough problem that I feel like we need more help and then seek it? Is there anything I should be doing with her?

Hartley said...

Hi Katie!

My suggestion for you, is that if you can relate to the check list in this post, that you should seek a qualified Occupational Therapist to evaluate your daughter.

The simple reason is, that if she is exhibiting these behaviors, she could very well benefit from proper treatment, OT therapy and support. With those in place, the behaviors will lessen, and she hopefully be more 'in sync' overall.

As our kids get older, the pressure to meet behavioral norms increases. Specifically, social, academic, emotional and mental development depends greatly on a child's ability to stay calm and regulated.

Let me know if you have any other quesitons!


Karen said...

I found you through a link on another blog...our son is definitely a seeker (which I've known)...he's much improved, but perhaps I should look into OT mentioned "qualified in SPD" can I know for sure that they are?

texjoyce said...

Hi Hartley,

I love your post. I am totally being blamed for my kids' behavior. I have even been told that I am "a bad parent"! My child, I was told, just needs to be slapped when she says or does something inappropriate. I have also been told that SPD is BS! I am so glad that we have a place to connect here!



Dana Lisa said...

Great post - very clear and concise! And I'm glad you pointed out that many kids with SPD have both seeking and avoiding tendencies. My daughter is very much like that - needs movement (swinging, jumping,climbing etc)has to touch everything, thumb-sucker, has to eat/snack on sour, crunchy foods and often has difficulty sitting still. However, she also toe-walks, often does not like loud sounds, and wearing shoes is often an issue (yet she loves walking barefoot in grass.) For the longest time, she absolutely refused to wear Band-Aids.

My stepson falls more into the sensory avoider category - very picky eater (to the point where he often eats very little and has to be told he must eat - I actually believe on some level that he doesn't always feel hunger pangs), doesn't particularly like showering, hates tags, seams and tight fitting clothing, is highly responsive to pain and generally tries to avoid contact with others during sports (soccer, football, etc.)

Knowing that they have these sensory experiences helps me work more effectively with them and also head off those people who say my daughter is out of control, or that my stepson is being spoiled or controlling.

Appreciate all your work to help educate and help parents of children with SPD!

Jenna said...

great article. My oldest daughter was dx at 6 with SPD, SMD, and CAPD, and finally, at 9, with Aspergers. There is so little specifically written about SMD. thank you!

Mom2Kaia said...

Hi Hartley!

I'm so glad that you re-advertise your older posts on twitter... this one is super-helpful!

Like you mentioned, my kiddo is both a seeker AND an avoider. She hates messy play and messy foods but loves being upside-down and shaking her head wildly.

As always, you are a great resource -- I'll be printing and taking your list when we go next week for my daughter's eval!

ShesAlwaysWrite said...

Thought you might like to know I shared this with a local family with a little girl whose preschool teacher recently approached the parents to suggest she needs an eval for SPD - she's a classic seeker and the family (and teachers!) been predictably overwhelmed by her behavior. They're just starting the whole process and told me this piece was very helpful :D

Hartley said...

Happy to hear that Michelle! :)

Sherri said...

My 2 year old son just got diagnosed with sensory seeking behavior yesterday. I do see a few avoidance traits but mostly seeking traits.We were in church this weekend and he chewed up his blanket and sweater. I am very relieved because I was worried it was autism, members of my family were convinced it was autism and aspbergers. We are starting with an OT in a few weeks.I am so relieved, I knew something was wrong but didn't know what.

Nancy said...


I have a primarily sensory seeking son, with lots of avoiding, too. I am shocked how many people in the child medical profession (including "sensory processing specialists/OTs"...even at our otherwise great Children's Hospital) expect such a child to complete there briefcase full of "tests" and are shocked when they are not interested. My son is very intelligent (one evaluator had the audacity to write in the official report.."Mother notes the child is intelligent but I saw no signs of that during the interview"...she spent 1.5 hours of his life with him, insisting he do very dull things, and even trying to feed him gummy bears with dye which would make him come unglued due to the dye) and has no use for such people. I have 2 very happy, wonderful, amazing daughters 13 and 19, and have had to stand up for them at various times in their lives, in disbelief of the "adults" or "experts."

However, I knew very little about SPD before December when a sweet 75 year old retired OT suggested this, and a wonderful equine therapist suggested I read The Out of Synch Child. Wow! Even with that, it's been a struggle to get the help we need. I am told it is amazing that I understand what my child needs, and know so much about him. I find myself wishing I had a degree in this area, so I REALLY knew how best to help. I think that's what specialists are for (to quickly educate us and help) but so far (3 OTs, one of whom was ok but quit the center he was going to and moved after 3 weeks, the rest not good with him at all) it's a struggle.

I've even asked for groups of similar moms, because I know there MUST be others out there who are great, involved, educated and caring parents, who are saying at their child's outbursts at the drop of a hat, "What in the world? What have I done wrong? What could I do better?"

Just in reading the first few posts to your article I can see there are some of those here.

Thanks to you, and your readers and responders! It's not an easy journey, but our children are worth fighting for the best of everything...including UNDERSTANDING!

Two last comments; the second OT I saw (the first never got around to doing anything except delaying a report or meeting) indicated "Until you get this behavior under control, there is NOTHING I can do for you or him." She made very judgmental remarks about him/us, and she has one daughter 1 year old, and I have 2 very successful and happy kiddos (raised by me) including one at one of the best universities in the country, and who is wonderful (like all my kiddos). But when we are desperately looking for answers from the "professional " and are met with this type of remark, how deflating (and blamed) we feel (at least I did!) I'd like to complain to the supervisor at the local Children's Hospital about the 3rd OT, but I need all the energy and time to move forward for my son. Still...

My son was also adopted and for various reasons transferred 4 times in the first month of life and then we flew to the foreign country when he was 10 months to pick him up. Not ideal, but the country is a great one (our 13 year old is from there) and do the best that they can. No adoption is simple, even if it seems much loss for the child who cannot tell anyone with words how he is feeling. We are piecing together a team of people who have skills that help.

It would be nice to have people applaud what a sweet, considerate, kind kiddo he is, and offer helpful suggestions (the ones we ask for suggestions, the professionals) rather than point out the hopelessness (which is unfounded) of the SPD and behavior.

I am just really starting this journey of learning, and feel blessed for people like you and your readers.

Again, thank you.


Julie said...

Really interesting. My almost 7 year old son is a seeker in some ways and an avoider in others, but I've observed that his preference for seeking or avoiding depends on the sense. For touch he is an extreme seeker and always has been. For sound, he can be loud, but in general, he can't stand loud noises. Visually he seems to seek input, but he seems to avoid smells. Taste, I can't figure out... he's a very picky eater, but he likes raw onion and some spicy food. Thanks for your post.

s3niormoment said...

I wish I knew this 10 years ago whaen I first entered the teaching profession. I now have a 5 year old "seeker" of my own... my heart aches for all those little guys & gals I felt such frustration with. These kids need recognition & support in the classroom and sadly teachers still need educating.

Amanda Kandel said...

I too have three boys (triplets 3 year olds) and my son Liam has just started receiving occupational therapy. He is just like Gabriel minus spinning. He is a jumper. As we started putting the pieces of the puzzle together over the past few months I have been learning to help Liam achieve balance in his sensory regulation and keep him on his sensory diet. When we are out in public and he has his meltdowns I wish I could walk up to everyone looking at me and explain that he just gets overwhelmed and he has to get back to neutral. It is nice to know I am not alone.