Understanding Sensory Seeking and Sensory Avoidance

Sensory processing differences are a common characteristic of autism. Autistic people often experience hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or (more frequently) both to sensory input, leading to sensory seeking or sensory avoidance behaviors.

Sensory Seeking: Sensory seeking refers to a tendency to actively seek out sensory stimulation. This is a result of hyposensitivity to stimuli. Individuals who are sensory seekers may crave certain sensations and engage in behaviors to fulfill their sensory needs. They may seek out activities or objects that provide deep pressure, intense visual stimulation, strong tastes, or repetitive movements. Sensory seeking behaviors can manifest in various ways, such as spinning, flapping, rocking, seeking out loud noises, touching objects (like textured stim toys!), or engaging in vigorous physical activity.

Sensory Avoidance: On the other hand, sensory avoidance involves actively avoiding or minimizing exposure to certain sensory stimuli. This is a result of hypersensitivity. Individuals who experience sensory avoidance may find certain sensations overwhelming or uncomfortable. They may exhibit avoidance behaviors to regulate their sensory experiences. This could include avoiding crowded places, covering their ears to block out loud noises, wearing specific clothing textures, needing to cut tags off of clothing, or avoiding bright lights. Noise canceling headphones can also be helpful for people sensitive to sound.

Understanding the Impact: Both sensory seeking and sensory avoidance behaviors serve as coping mechanisms for autistic individuals. While some of them may seem unconventional to onlookers, they are normal behaviours for dealing with a world that doesn’t address a person’s sensory needs. Sensory seeking allows us to regulate their sensory input and find comfort, while sensory avoidance helps them manage overwhelming sensations. However, these behaviors can also present challenges or be actively harmful and unhealthy. If your sensory avoidant or sensory seeking behaviours are unsafe or causing problems, it still doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means you need to learn other ways to cope with hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. For example, you might replace skin picking with picking at a textured stim toy.

Managing Sensory Challenges:

Self-awareness: Develop self-awareness regarding your sensory preferences and sensitivities. Recognize the types of sensory input that are overwhelming or calming for you. This understanding will empower you to advocate for your needs and make informed choices. They may also help you avoid a meltdown/shutdown, by recognizing situations you need to get out of.

Sensory diet: Create a personalized "sensory diet" to meet your sensory needs. Incorporate activities that provide the sensory input you seek or help you avoid overwhelming stimuli. This might involve using fidget toys, incorporating sensory breaks, engaging in physical exercise, or incorporating calming strategies like deep breathing or mindfulness.

Environmental modifications: Make adjustments to your environment to create a sensory-friendly space. Experiment with lighting, noise levels, and temperature to find what works best for you. Consider using ear defenders or headphones to minimize noise, adjusting the brightness of lights, or using curtains or blinds to control visual stimulation. You can’t control the whole world, but creating sensory-friendly safe spaces you can rest and recharge in can give you more sensory and emotional bandwidth to tolerate the environments you can’t control.

Sensory tools: Utilize sensory tools and aids to manage sensory challenges. Weighted blankets, chew toys, or textured objects can provide calming sensory input. Experiment with different textures, fabrics, or clothing options to find ones that are comfortable and soothing for you.

Communicating needs: Communicate your sensory needs to those around you. Educate friends, family, and coworkers about your sensory sensitivities and preferences. This will help them understand your needs and create a more supportive environment. It is okay to set boundaries around senses, but you also need to respect other people’s boundaries and needs, and be prepared to compromise. For example, bright lights may bother you, but dim lighting may bother someone else. Especially around family, if you are neurodivergent, there is a good chance your family members are too, since it tends to run in families. Communication and mutual respect can go a long way in finding an acceptable middle ground. You may also be able to get sensory accommodations for school and work. The process for that will vary considerably. Many colleges/universities have disability offices and many workplaces have HR departments to help people navigate accessing those accommodations.

Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy isn’t just for children. Neurodivergent adults can also benefit greatly from it. Consider seeking guidance from an occupational therapist specializing in sensory processing. They can provide valuable insights, strategies, and personalized interventions to help manage sensory challenges effectively. When meeting a new occupational therapist, you can ask what experience they have working with neurodivergent adults, to make sure they’re a good fit.

Sensory seeking and sensory avoidance are two sides of the same coin when it comes to sensory processing differences in autism. Understanding your own sensory preferences and sensitivities, along with implementing appropriate strategies, can help you navigate sensory challenges and improve your overall well-being. Remember, everyone's sensory experiences are unique, so it's essential to find strategies that work best for you. Embracing your sensory differences and seeking support when needed will empower you to thrive in a world that may sometimes feel overwhelming (or underwhelming!).

Back to blog

Leave a comment