When Sensory Seeking Becomes Attention Seeking

As an occupational therapist, I see sensory-seeking kids every week who crash, jump, wiggle and hug their way through their days.  If a couch is available, it is either a launching pad or a landing pad.  Adults are for hanging on, landing on, or giving full-body hugs.  Seeking unsafe or inappropriate movement and touch for sensory seeking can be worked on in therapy and with a sensory diet, but there is another aspect of these behaviors that often needs to be addressed.

Once a child recognizes that adults will give him more attention but not meaningful consequences for sensory-based behavior, it can be his choice to use these behaviors to engage with them socially, to divert an adult’s attention from a sibling or a phone call, or to avoid participation in something less desirable, like cleaning up the mess he made earlier that day.

Don’t get me wrong:  many sensory-actions-that-are-really-attention-seeking behaviors start out as a child’s way to calm down and get more proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input.  Kids can also do the same actions for either reason all in the same day.  Crashing in the morning to calm down, crashing at night because an older sibling is getting all the attention.

All kids like to experiment with how far, how loud and how hard they can move their bodies.  Sensory seekers have greater frequency, variety and endurance of these behaviors, and can look more unstable, unfocused and uncoordinated without some movement input Good Posture: Is it Vestibular or Proprioceptive?.  An example that adults can connect with would be the guy in the meeting who taps his pen on his teeth as he thinks about a solution to a problem.  He isn’t doing it to annoy you (probably); he is getting some sensory input to rev up his system and focus harder.  Really.  Once you can look at his actions through a sensory lens, it’s still annoying behavior, but you know it isn’t a plot to irritate you at work.

How can you tell whether a child is seeking movement input more for communication/behavioral reasons than for sensory satisfaction?  This one is more of an art than a science, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Can he ask for attention effectively when you are otherwise occupied?  If your child is great at interrupting you on the phone politely, and expects a consequence for rudeness, but he still demands a full-body hug, then he may really want that deep pressure and not see another source of calming input.  Have you given him clear instruction about how to request deep pressure?  It might be time to clarify it.  Even kids around 2 can say “Big hug please” or sign it to you.
  • Does your child get a reasonable amount of physical play every day?  Small children need to stretch it out and move.  A lot.  Any child that doesn’t get enough movement will seek it out.  It isn’t sensory or behavior; it is satisfaction of a natural physical need.
  • Have you created clear expectations about tasks like cleaning up, and developed methods for going from one activity/location to another?  Self-Regulation in Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: Boost Skills By Creating Routines and Limits  Kids that either don’t want to end a game, don’t want to put toys away, get dressed, or go on to the next event can stall by using fun crashing and jumping instead.  If you have no problem getting them to clean up in order to go out for pizza, then you might have a stalling child, not a sensory seeking one, right now.
  • Is your child more interested in your reaction to his jumping or crashing?  Could you give him deep pressure while talking to someone else, and he is totally fine with that?  Does he ask for deep pressure when he already has your undivided attention, or just when you are on the phone or speaking with his dad?  Sensory seekers primarily want that physical input, and having an audience is secondary.  If a child is more interested in you seeing him launch off the couch and won’t switch to the available outdoor trampoline that he usually craves, it may be because he will be losing your attention once he goes outside.  And that was what he was really seeking.
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