Sensory Seeking

Is your child doing all his own stunts?

Is your child:

  • Jumping too much?
  • Seeking intense movement?
  • Falling out of the chair?
  • Having trouble sitting still?
  • Acting uncoordinated?
  • Enjoying being upside down, swinging, or spinning?
  • Slamming against walls?
  • Getting hurt often?
  • Displaying poor posture?
  • Bumping into people?


A child with these challenges may look like a little ‘Evil Knievel,’ having no fear, relentlessly in the pursuit of thrills. They may be willing to try anything and may fail to check if the coast is clear before taking a leap.

It is important to differentiate true problems here as compared to the typical and necessary exploration of childhood playtime. Some critical issues have gone unnoticed and untreated due to the age-old belief that ‘boys will be boys’ or the notion that ‘she will grow out of it.’ If your child is unable to participate with peers due to excessive movement or clumsiness, this challenge is a red flag, worthy of looking into further.

Many children with these challenges are too intense in their movements. They need to be hugged very tightly and may need deep pressure or weighted blankets to calm down. They may jump off of high equipment repeatedly. When they crash on the ground, they may seem not to feel it the way others do.

Motor skills are heavily regulated by the sensory system; when impaired, these skills have a significant impact on the ability to participate in a wide variety of activities, particularly in sports, recess, and physical education. A child may appear to be uncomfortable in his or her own skin. He or she may look ‘floppy’ and have poor posture and a lack of stability.

Sensorimotor development starts in early infancy and impacts the ability to participate in school, athletics, and social activities. Children with poor sensorimotor perception in the areas of balance, motion, and body-space tend to be clumsy and uncoordinated. They may be easily injured and may have frequent falls. They often cannot judge their body space, bumping into walls while walking down the hall or hitting their heads on the top of the tunnel slide.


Children who have challenges with balance, coordination, and locomotion generally have sensory deficits in the vestibular or proprioceptive systems, or both. The vestibular system is responsible for motor control, speed of movement, and the body’s position in space. Vestibular processing is best defined as,


In essence, the vestibular system is like a precise internal GPS, used for maintaining the orientation of head and body in time and space, along with the auditory and visual systems” [2].


Vestibular processing: Essentially, the vestibular system keeps track of where we are and where we are going. Children with difficulties in vestibular processing tend to miscalculate the space between themselves and other objects. They have poor physical boundaries and often crash into things or bump into people.


Proprioceptive processing: The other area that may be impacted if your child is chronically moving and uncoordinated may be the proprioceptive system. The term proprioception is from the Latin word ‘proprius,’ which means ‘one’s own,’ and from ‘capio,’ which means to grasp the relative position [2,3]. Thus, the word proprioceptive is referring to our own body space awareness [2,3]. Children with poor proprioceptive modulation tend to struggle with motor milestones and basic coordination. They might be slow to crawl, walk, or run due to poor bi-lateral control.


Robots, Gumby dolls, and the Bull in the China Shop: They do not move smoothly and may look like a robot, being stiff and jerky in their movements. Alternately, they may look like ‘Gumby,’ being far too flexible and uncontrolled as they walk or run. Children with these issues may talk too close to people’s faces because they are unaware of body-space. They may unintentionally knock over furniture or break objects. They may appear like ‘a bull in a china shop’.


Cognitive load: One important issue to consider here is that the movements and body space regulated by the vestibular and proprioceptive systems are supposed to be somewhat automatic. Most of us do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about how close things are to us, how our legs are positioned, or whether or not we are about to bump into a wall. When these skills are taking a lot of effort for your child, concerns can be raised about something psychologists call ‘cognitive load.’ That is, when things that are supposed to be automatic take a lot of work, your child’s brain may have trouble thinking about the task at hand. It is analogous to trying to have a productive day at work when you are hungry or are not feeling well. So much effort and energy is being spent on maintaining your physical body; your brain might not be able to think straight.


Odd behavior: Kids who are sensory seeking may also show some odd behaviors in other areas. For example, a child may reach out and pet a classmate’s hair. Another issue may be the tendency to repetitively rub one’s face on a piece of fabric. A child may run around in the wind, to feel the breeze, in a compulsive fashion. These behaviors arise from a child’s tendency to seek out sensory stimulation as well.


If you are wondering about your child’s sensory regulation, it is generally advised to have a full psychological evaluation. Why? Because in clinical practice it is observed almost unilaterally that sensory problems do not occur in isolation. It is a mistake to think that your child’s sensory issue tells the whole story. It does not. Children with poor sensory regulation almost always have an underlying psychological, neurological, or medical issue.

Sensory Processing Disorder: Here at the CLEAR, in accordance with the American Medical Association, sensory problems are not considered a disability. Rather, these problems are considered a symptom of a disability. We feel strongly that too many children with autism, ADHD, or a medical condition are being drastically underserved with a diagnosis of ‘Sensory Processing Disorder.’

Although sensory problems are worthy of and amenable to treatment, sensory therapy alone is unlikely to essentially, ‘cure what ails you.’ Said another way, children with sensory problems are likely to have disabilities that require therapies far beyond those recognized by a sensory regulation ‘diagnosis.’

If you feel that your child may have a sensory problem, it is recommended that your child have a comprehensive psychological evaluation to consider the following: ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Trauma or PTSD, Developmental (Motor) Coordination Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, or Developmental Delay. Any of these disabilities may be the root cause of your child’s sensory problems. A licensed psychologist will not only determine which diagnoses are relevant for your child but will also make recommendations for treatment of that disability and any co-occurring sensory difficulties.

Activities to help a sensory seeking child:

  • Jumping on a trampoline, large inner tube, couch cushions, a bed, or other similar objects
  • Games that involve heavy work, such as wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, tug-of-war or playing tag
  • Climbing on or hanging from monkey bars, jungle gyms, etc.
  • Pushing/pulling wagon filled with heavy objects
  • Wearing a weighted vest or carrying a weighted backpack
  • Pushing with feet and/or hands against resistance (can be made into a game)
  • Using heavy blankets, pillows or cushions
  • Wrestling, giving or receiving bear hugs
  • Gymnastics or tumbling classes
  • Swimming
  • Fidget toys for school
  • Massaging lotion on arms, hands, legs, feet
  • Laying on stomach to increase attention (more proprioceptive input from floor)
  • Turning off lights to calm environment
  • Linear movement (like swinging)
  • Chewing gum, licorice, beef jerky (for oral sensory seekers)
  • Rocking


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Attention (Focusing): children with sensory sensitivities may have difficulties paying attention
  • Social (Socializing): children with developmental disabilities such as autism may have social skill and sensory challenges
  • Adaptive (Daily Living): children with poor adaptive skills, such as difficulty with self-care or chores, may also have sensory challenges
  • Academic problems (Learning): children with sensory needs may have difficulty in school
  • Trauma or neglect (Feeling): children with a trauma history may have sensory sensitivities
  • Motor problems (Moving & Sensing): children who have difficulty with sensory regulation may also have poor motor skills


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Delay: lower IQ combined with motor, learning, and/or speech delay
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. By definition, children with autism will have sensory regulation issues.
  • Gifted and Talented (GT): Full Scale IQ or Index scores at or above 95th Giftedness is not a disability; however, a gifted child is likely to require additional supports. The ‘sensitivity’ inherent in being gifted may also lead to sensory regulation problems.
  • Intellectual Disability (ID): Full Scale IQ score below 70 & Vineland Adaptive / Daily Living Scores below 70. Thus, IQ and Adaptive skills must be low to qualify as ID. Some children with these difficulties also have sensory regulation difficulties due to poor overall brain functioning.
  • Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): Many children with sensory regulation problems struggle in school


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist.
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context, can administer a full battery of assessments to obtain diagnostic clarification and then make recommendations for research-based and efficacious treatments.
  • School Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context and to evaluate for school services
  • Physical Therapist: to help with problems with balance and motor coordination
  • Occupational Therapist: to help with problems with sensory regulation and activities of daily living

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • TOVA-II or other Continuous Performance Test: test of sustained attention and impulsivity
  • Conner’s 3 and BRIEF rating scales: tests of attention and executive functioning skills often associated with ADHD or neuro-developmental problems
  • Sensory Profile: rating scale test of sensory registration problems (high registration/low registration)
  • Beery VMI Sequence: test of visual-motor integration, visual perception, and coordination
  • NEPSY: test of executive functions and neuropsychological performance
  • WISC-V: intelligence test
  • Social Skills Rating Scale: social skills assessment primarily for the skill deficits associated with autism
  • Roberts-2 and Human Figure Drawing: tests of personality and emotions


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Vestibular and Proprioceptive:

[3] Sensory Development: Vestibular & Proprioceptive

[3] Trail (2011). Twice exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.



[4] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.


[5] Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.


[6] Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.


Image Credit:
Description: Young Boys Racing Wearing Watermelon Helmets
Stock Photo ID: #483600588 (iStock)
By: Rich Vintage
Previously Licensed on: April 23, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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