Sensory Seeking and Sensory Avoiding

7th August 2020

So, I have learnt about the difference between sensory seeking and sensory avoidance when it comes to being on the autistic spectrum. This is also formally known as hyposensitivity and hyper sensitivity. It has been recognised that many people on the autistic spectrum experience sensory processing disorders, leaving them hypo/hyper sensitive to some senses. Hypersensitivity is something I have explored in my previous blog ‘Sensory Overload’. Hypersensitivity is where a person is sensitive to senses. For example, I will avoid loud noises and bright lights because I am hypersensitive to them. Hyposensitivity is where a person has a low sensitivity to a sense, therefore they become sensory seeking. When a person is sensory seeking, they are seeking a certain sensation that will probably calm them.

There are different senses that a person may be hyposensitive or hypersensitive to. Depending on whether the person is hyper or hyposensitive to something, will determine whether they are sensory seeking or sensory avoiding .

SIGHT

  • Hyposensitivity– objects may appear dark, cannot see light the same as others- will display sensory seeking– likes playing with lights, or looking at moving lights
  • Hypersensitive- may sensitive to bright lights- display sensory avoiding behaviours by avoiding bright lights

SOUND

  • Hyposensitivity– may not hear certain sounds, doesn’t acknowledge some sounds- Sensory seeking behaviour will include- will enjoy crowded place, or seek out or make loud noises
  • Hypersensitivity- noise is magnified and sounds are distorted or muddled, can hear background noise, cannot cut out sounds- Sensory avoiding– behaviour will include- covering ears, avoid crowded places

SMELL

  • Hyposensitivity- lack sense of smell, fail to notice odours- Sensory seeking behaviour- seek out smells, or lick things to get a sense of what they are
  • Hypersensitivity– experience smells intensely- Sensory avoiding– avoid certain smells, for example avoiding people with certain perfumes

TASTE

  • Hyposensitivity– does not experience flavour or texture of food intensely- Sensory seeking– likes to eat spicy food, eats non-edible items
  • Hypersensitivity– flavours of food become too strong, food textures cause discomfort- Sensory avoiding-prefers plain food, dislikes certain food textures or tastes

TOUCH

  • Hyposensitivity– has a high pain threshold , doesn’t feel sensations of pressure- Sensory seeking- high pain threshold therefore may self-harm, seeks pressure by holding others tightly, fiddle with objects, enjoys heavy objects on them (weighted blanket), chews things
  • Hypersensitivity– dislikes hugging people, feels touch intensely- Sensory avoiding– avoid hugging people, avoid having clothing on hands or feet, avoid brushing/washing hair, dislikes certain food textures, intolerant of certain clothing textures

BALANCE/ VESTIBULAR

  • Hyposensitivity– not feeling motion- Sensory seeking– needing to rock or swing for sensory input
  • Hypersensitivity– feels motion intensely- Sensory avoiding – dislikes sports, experiences car sickness, dislikes things such as amusement park rides

BODY AWARENESS/ PROPRIOCEPTION

  • Hyposensitivity- unaware of bodily space in relation to others, lack of understanding of how different body parts move- Sensory seeking- stands to close to others, bump into people, rock back and forth
  • Hypersensitivity- difficulties with motor skills, highly aware of their bodily space- Sensory avoiding– avoid being close to others, will be more physically cautious

When a person is sensory seeking, they are likely under-sensitive to input (hyposensitivity), when a person is sensory avoiding, they will be hypersensitive to input. Now some people may be one or the other, but it is not uncommon for people to be both. For example, I am hypersensitive to light, sounds and to the feel of certain materials (touch). Yet I can also seek sensory input of pressure which also falls under the touch category. Therefore, it is not so clear cut. On the whole I am more hypersensitive than hyposensitive, but I will seek sensory input by fiddling with objects or seeking pressure and sometimes seeking vestibular movement (despite hating the sensation of amusement park rides). For example, I have loved swimming since I was younger, and after swimming in the sea yesterday I realised I enjoy the pressure, and gentle rocking of the sea, as it provides calming sensory input. For a lot of autistic people, water is a widely used tool for sensory input, and only after yesterday did I realise I display sensory seeking tendencies with water too. While researching online, I came across aqua therapy which explains how people with autism often love the deep pressure that water provides. Water provides hydrostatic pressure as it exerts 30x more deep pressure stimulation on the body than air. Not only does it provide pressure, it includes vestibular stimulation as swimming provides similar sensations to rocking. It is also said to improve proprioception. Therefore, I would definitely advise using water as sensory input if you or your child is sensory seeking. For me, being in the water yesterday made me realise that despite being more sensory avoiding, there are sensory seeking behaviours I do in order to calm myself. So even if you are more hypersensitive, there may be sensory input activities out there that will calm you.

Sources used:

https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/sensory-seeking-and-sensory-avoiding-what-you-need-to-know

https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/sensory-world.aspx

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