At a fundamental level, sensory overload and sensory seeking stem from how an individual's nervous system reacts to sensory input from the environment. Everyone processes sensory input, but individuals may respond differently due to their unique neurological wiring. Neurodivergent people, like those with sensory-processing disorder, ADHD, autism and other conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, are more likely to experience sensory overload or have sensory seeking needs.
- Sensory overload occurs when an individual is exposed to too much sensory stimulation and their nervous system becomes overwhelmed. This could be in response to loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, or a bustling environment like a crowded mall.
- Overload can cause significant distress, anxiety, and discomfort, and you may seek to escape the overstimulating environment or might exhibit behaviors like covering their ears, squinting, or even having a meltdown as a way to cope.
- On the other hand, sensory seeking behavior is when an individual craves or seeks out more sensory stimulation. They might enjoy high levels of sensory input or activities that provide strong sensory feedback, like jumping, spinning, or touching textured surfaces.
- Sensory seekers may appear hyperactive or restless as they move from one sensory experience to another, trying to satisfy their craving for sensory input.
The overlap between sensory overload and sensory seeking can be quite intricate:
- Some individuals might exhibit both sensory seeking and sensory overload behaviors, sometimes even within a short span of time. For example, a child might enjoy spinning around (sensory seeking) but then become overwhelmed by a loud noise (sensory overload). In adults this can look like rapid productivity followed by a 3-hour Netflix binge.
- Also, sensory seeking behavior can sometimes be a coping mechanism for managing sensory overload. For instance, a child might seek certain sensory experiences to help them self-regulate and cope with an overwhelming sensory environment. In adults, sensory-seeking behavior may look like watching a TV show while you work, or constantly reaching for snacks.
- Understanding these sensory experiences and working with a team of supportive professionals can help in tailoring strategies to support you or your child's sensory needs. For instance, creating a sensory-friendly environment, wearing sensory-friendly clothing, adopting a nutrient-dense diet, or engaging in occupational therapy could help.
Being observant and responsive to you, or your child's, sensory needs, whether they lean towards sensory seeking or overload, or a combination of both, is a step towards fostering a supportive and understanding environment.
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