In the spirit of ADHD awareness month, let’s bust some of the myths out there and provide some accurate and potentially new, insightful information about ADHD.
First of all, what is ADHD? We hear about it all the time because it’s become pretty common in mainstream lingo, but what exactly does it mean? And why does it make sense to have a conversation about sensory seeking behaviors with ADHD?
What is ADHD?
In general, ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is not just about hyperactivity or inattention. It’s actually all about difficulties regulating arousal, attention/concentration, impulse control, as well as other executive functions that guide organized, goal-oriented behavior. A person with ADHD may find it extremely difficult to focus and sustain their attention, sit still, keep track of their belongings, categorize and organize things, plan and execute larger tasks, and control impulsive urges and behaviors. For example, have you ever known someone who just can’t seem to keep track of their car keys? Or a child who struggles to remember to bring home their homework? Or maybe you know someone that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to keep their room picked up. How about someone that seems to really take a deep dive into the things they enjoy, but can’t find the motivation to plan or do things that are less important to them? All of these behaviors are normal on their own, but when observed in combination with other ADHD symptoms, and to a degree that they are impairing functioning at work, home or school… that person might have ADHD!
Sensory Seeking Behaviors
In addition to the symptoms and behaviors mentioned above, ADHD and many other neurodevelopmental disorders can also cause sensory seeking behaviors.
Have you ever seen a child climbing all over or jumping off of furniture, stomping their feet, purposefully falling, bumping into things or bouncing around? Have you ever seen a child or adolescent or maybe even an adult chew on their shirt or sweatshirt strings? Have you ever seen a child watch tv or their iPad while upside down? Or maybe they did a lot of spinning around or swinging? Have you ever seen a child watch tv or their iPad really loud? Or make loud, sort of strange repetitive noises? Maybe yelling or screaming? Any of these behaviors at first glance may have seemed like this child was “acting out” or “misbehaving”. But let’s look at this from another lens.
If you answered yes to any of these, you may have seen kids engage in sensory seeking behaviors! Sensory seeking behaviors help individuals regulate (increase or sometimes decrease) the stimulation their brain is getting. And more often than not, these behaviors are missed, overlooked, or misinterpreted as “bad behavior or bad parenting”. They are not “bad behavior”, nor are they a result of “bad parenting”. These behaviors are really important signals to parents, teachers, and clinicians about an individual’s need for sensory INPUT, not OUTPUT. And if these sensory needs are not met, it typically leads to an increase in needs and an increase and frequency and intensity of these behaviors. Meaning, ADHD behavior gets more disruptive sometimes because the individual is trying to regulate but isn’t getting what they need.
Understanding the relationship between ADHD and sensory seeking is crucial for developing effective strategies to manage these behaviors. By recognizing these connections, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals can better support children and adolescents with ADHD who exhibit sensory-seeking tendencies.
There are five main types of sensory seeking behaviors:
1. Oral Motor input
Examples: chewing, snacking, sucking, licking
2. Tactile input
Examples: finger tapping, using handheld fidgets, sensitivity to clothing, always using a specific blanket
3. Proprioceptive input
Examples: using the entire body- crashing into things, bouncing, climbing walls, jumping, stomping
4. Vestibular input
Examples: being upside down, swinging, spinning
5. Auditory input
Examples: watching tv or listening to music very loud, making repetitive noises, yelling or screaming
So you’ve noticed your child engaging in sensory seeking behaviors, the question then becomes “now what”?
As a clinician, when I notice that a child is exhibiting sensory seeking tendencies, I make recommendations to clarify what needs the child has that are being expressed by these behaviors, including ensuring their diagnosis is clear and correct, and then I provide additional treatment recommendations. These recommendations may include getting in contact with the pediatrician/primary care physician, a possible referral to a neurologist, additional testing/assessments for diagnosis clarification, getting a referral for occupational therapy and/or physical therapy, and any other relevant additional services. In therapy we then work to increase the parent’s and child’s awareness of these behaviors, learn what need they are signaling, and learn to engage in positive, proactive coping and regulation. We practice these coping and regulation strategies so sensory seeking behaviors are less disruptive at home, school and work.
What do the parents do?
Parents should first and foremost understand that they have done nothing wrong and they have already done something invaluable and very important for their child by getting them help and support. Then parents can work with their provider to track these sensory seeking behaviors by asking, “what is this behavior telling us my child needs?” By tracking and understanding sensory seeking through this lens, your clinician can help you make a plan to meet your child’s needs at home and at school.
Having a child with ADHD and sensory needs is not easy, but the help and support is out there! We are here for you and we are here to make things easier for you and your child. They don’t have to go through life struggling and neither do you. It can get easier and it will.
ADHD and sensory-seeking behaviors often intersect, leading to added challenges in social interactions and classroom settings. However, with the right support, treatment, and accommodations, these sensory needs can be effectively managed. This not only helps the child navigate their daily life more comfortably but also fosters an environment conducive to their growth and development.