Sensory Seeking

I am a sensory seeker and always have been. As a small child I was never without my comfort blanket, as I got older I was never without my scraps of “the right sort” of fabric, which I would rub between forefinger and thumb.

The texture would have to be “right” and the “rightness” has changed with the ageing of my nerve endings; from muslin to cotton to tissues to crepe paper. I have felt a million textures, always seeking perfection, all different, some better, some worse.

I have stocked up on cheap tissues and worn them to dust between my fingertips. I have hidden away in toilets to indulge my habit without being judged.

I am a sensory addict. I do it most when stressed, that’s when it becomes a need. It helps me think, it soothes an overload, it softens something deep within, at the back of my head.

As a child I would panic without my scrap of fabric. What would start out as my stolen father’s cotton handkerchiefs, would soon be worn away to nothing. I remember making the school bus wait, because I had forgotten something important, and crawling around under the tables in the strangely empty classroom, panicked and desperate not to be without my sensory peace for the ten minute drive home.

I remember the terror of not having something to feel. How would I get through the next moments of life without it? It was as desperate a need as air.

Children never minded me stimming. If they commented at all, it was only out of curiosity, and whatever I responded with was met with an, “Oh right” and on to the next adventure.

As I got older I was warned by adults that people would pick on me, would bully me, if they saw me doing it. So I kept it in a pocket, did it under the table, or waited to be shameful and alone.

Adults aren’t as good at coping with difference, as children are.

A couple of my children are sensory seekers. One of them loves to rub the ears of her toy dog against her face. This is how she makes the world a pleasant, sensory place.

We were sat at the table one day, and she thoughtfully said, “Maybe we should cut his head off.”

I laughed and asked why.

“Because I don’t need his body, and he’s heavy, and maybe I could keep him around longer.”

Some people might be appalled at that suggestion. This was the toy that she had loved since she was a baby. This was the toy who had lain beside her when she was ill, and who she had held when she had nightmares. This was her companion and friend.

Except, it isn’t. That’s not true. This is a fabric representation of an animal, not an animal. This is a sensory toy, that she has a deep bond to; not because it represents a dog, but because it changes the way she feels when she touches it.

I agreed that, that sounded like a sensible thing to do, but asked her why she thought not doing it would mean she couldn’t carry on.

“I’m getting older now. It’s babyish to still be playing with his ears.”

I sighed and told her that her toy was hers, hers alone. If she wanted to cut the ears off and keep them in her pocket, she could. If she wanted to keep it whole and beside her for as long as she likes, then she can. She has other sensory items for use at school. Her dog is a huge part of her safe space.

I asked her if she only wanted to cut his head off because of what other people might think.

“Yes. I might lose his ears if they weren’t attached. He’s easier to keep track of when he’s whole.”

I was glad she came to that conclusion. She is a pragmatist, like her mother. She sees the use, and not the judgement, but she knew that to fit in this world, sometimes we are asked to bend ourselves.

If you are autistic you will be expected to bend yourself a lot. There are ways that I am willing to do that, I will choose to filter my “facts” and “truths” by what may hurt people (even when I mean them as statements and have no judgement attached). I will do smalltalk when I have the energy to spare because it puts people at their ease. I will do my utmost to communicate in the ways of the majority, when energy allows.

But I will not, ever, give up my right to sensory seeking. It is a part of who I am. It is a need. It is how I make harsh-sensory spaces bearable, and how I clear my mind for thinking. It is not babyish. I am not stuck in some Freudian aural stage.

When overwhelmed by negative sensory stimulus, which I often am, I use positive sensory information to combat it.

I am liberated enough to know my mind and to respect my needs, just as I do my utmost to respect other people’s too. I never had a doggy, but if I had I would have snipped its ears off and skinned it, because its tactile value is real, and its anthropomorphic value is nothing to me.

Does that sound psychopathic? It’s not. I would never hurt an animal. I was the child who spent hours lugging frogspawn from a puddle I knew would dry out, to the pond. Hours of buckets and aching arms to save the next generation.

An image is not the thing, but if you value the image of the thing, I will respect your value as real and important to you. I don’t have to understand it, or feel it, to respect it. Just as you should respect what I value too.

Being in the minority, I have learned that sometimes I need to believe what other people find important, regardless of how I feel about it. It’s not a lesson the majority have to face as often, but it’s an important one. We are all different, and we are all experts in ourselves. To learn about people, you have to listen first and foremost.

21 thoughts on “Sensory Seeking

  1. Gosh, this is the first time I’ve come across this concept. I’m thinking I may have this sensory-seeking trait… a lot of what you have written here resonates. Interesting.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Overall, me too. However – after a night out socialising (even without alcohol), I feel so sensorily overloaded, and this often continues into the next day. I then have a hard time doing much productive for the rest of that day. Thanks again – you’ve made me think, and I’m slowly learning more and more about myself.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Apart from my debilitating auditory sensitivity, making me an auditory sensory avoider to several things, I also seek. I bury my nose in flowers, used to give myself rug burns on the carpet as a kid and run my hands and fingers over rough objects which provides comfort after cutting my fingernails.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah yes, I would always press my fingertips together as hard as possible after having nails cut. I find touch very grounding in lots of situations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hadn’t thought about touch as being grounding before but it makes total sense. When I see something I have to touch it too. Like it makes it more real. Then to smell adds again. My son tastes things too – lots of things that aren’t food.
        There are so many amazingly fantastical things in this world to see, touch, feel, hear – sometimes I wonder why others aren’t as enraptured as I am but I guess I’m not the ‘norm’. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting. I hadn’t thought about sensory seeking before, just avoiding. Fleeces are my thing thought I suspect they are a substitute for animal fur. I love the touch of cats and dogs. I have a lovely large thick velvet like Cherokee blanket I brought back from Canada that I can wrap myself in. I can’t describe how good it feels! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Your story reminds me of a childhood security blanket – “Little Blang”. I remember several times Mom tried to replace Little Blang with a less-worn blanket, perhaps when LB was in the wash, but no other had the same texture. I can’t remember at what age LB disappeared for good, perhaps by the time I was 7. It wasn’t the same need you have, but I understand the differences in texture and I don’t think I’ve ever held a blanket quite that is the same.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I never had that one particular thing, I had many blankets scattered about the place, all slightly different, some better, some worse. That connection to one thing must be rather lovely too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My 14 year old son was finally diagnosed with ASD at the age of 10. I appreciate this article and your comments about how you felt after clipping your nails. I didn’t realize the lasting effect it could have. I never hurt him (cut him or cut the nails too short) but my son would scream and fight every time I cut his nails until I just stopped when he was about 4 because he began biting them. I thought he just didn’t trust me. He still keeps them quite long. Hair cuts were about the same until around 4 years ago and he still puts it off as long as he can stand it; wears hats constantly. There were many things about him that baffled me until he was diagnosed and we were finally educated on why he had so many struggles. He has always been drawn to tags. When he was lying on a play mat for “tummy time” he would turn his toys around and play with the tags. Now he has a pair of pants he wore when he was 10 that have that “right” textured tag. He sleeps with them, brings them in the ride to school sometimes (I drive him) etc. He used to have a certain shirt he could wear that had a tag on the side he liked, and he could just tuck his fingers under it to rub the tag. He won’t keep any in his pockets at school now because he’s been bullied so much, he is probably afraid of it even at a new school. It would probably help him though. Hmmm… maybe a squish ball in his bookbag. I guess it has to be his idea.


  5. Yeah, it’s somewhat about finding stim in socially acceptable ways. When I was in teacher training, I decided I was going to have to stop chewing my nails to the quick and beyond. I 98% pulled that off for 23 years, but lately it’s been eating me. I thoroughly enjoy going to the Goodwill used clothing store and drifting my fingers through the different sweaters as I scope for the deal on cashmere. Acrylic can have a similar texture, but it catches on my calluses whereas good wool doesn’t. I fell in love with silk shirts from Goodwill when I discovered them, but then I learned they make me sweat (go figure!).
    My favorite past time in the last few years has been deliberately, carefully grasping thorns. I hold them until I can feel their sharpness but stop short of puncturing my skin. Then there’s kissing a thistle flower with all those sharp points so close–delicious!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely shop with my hands more than my eyes. I love to run my fingers over the textures and find what feels right to me. Bamboo is my current favourite. The softness is incredible, and it’s breathable and light. Wonderful stuff.

      I can see the allure of grasping thorns. Their smoothness and density is very appealing. Love all your descriptions of textures. Great stuff. Thank you for sharing!


  6. I love this article. Although I’ve never been tested or diagnosed with ASD, I’ve always been a sensory seeker. I know it’s common, but I can’t sleep without white noise since I was a small child, nor can I sleep without something soft against my cheek. I need that little bit of extra cloth, crumpled a certain way under my cheek. As an infant & toddler, it was a spare cotton cloth diaper. In high school & college, it was a very soft t-shirt. A few years ago I found a super soft jersey knit pillowcase. Now, it’s an artificially distressed, extra soft from wear & wash ‘Affliction’ t-shirt. It goes with me when I travel, and I bring it from my room in times of severe anxiety, stress, and depression. I’m 47 and married with 2 children. Both sleep with special soft t-shirts and pillowcases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sensory seeking is more common in people with ASD, but it’s definitely not only found there. I think that sensory connection is a really beautiful thing – although it can cause difficulties at others. Thanks for sharing your experience with me


  7. For me, it’s always been sheets and sheet edges, worn until they are threadbare. I always travel with my own spare sheet. I have some sheet edge scraps and and keep one in my pocket most days. My favorite I’ve had since college and I’ve lost it for about two months now and I’ve been really distressed over not being able to find it. The others aren’t as perfect. I thought I was the only one! I’m 42.

    Liked by 1 person

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