Your Child's Sensory Diet
Just as your child needs food throughout the course of the day, he needs sensory input, and opportunities for getting away from sensory stimulation, throughout the day.
What is a sensory diet?
It's not about food! It's a carefully designed, personalized schedule of sensory activities that give a child the sensory input he needs to better handle his activities of daily living. A sensory diet will help your child function well at school, at home, and away so he can learn, socialize, eat meals with family and friends without stress and struggle, and so on. By providing a sensory diet, you can, over time, retrain his brain to process sensory information from his sensory receptors in a more typical way, which will promote self-regulation of activity, focus, and mood. You know how you jiggle your knee or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot bathtub to unwind, and feel calmer, more focused, and more alert afterward? Children need to engage in stabilizing, focusing activities, too. And babies, kids, and teens with sensory processing issues that significantly interfere with their everyday lives need more help than most do to stay self-regulated and handle the sensory input they experience everywhere they go. A sensory diet should be customized for an individual child. Usually, the sensory diet template includes what's to be done during the morning and bedtime routines, meals, and major transitions throughout the day.
Each child has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a child is hyperactive needs movement and stimulation that includes heavy work (involving the joints and ligaments) as well as other sensory stimulation to bring her back to a calmer, more focused state so she is not running around seeking out sensations her body craves. A sensory diet helps her meet her sensory needs safely, in a way that is socially appropriate. A child who commonly is a sensory avoider and underactive may be overwhelmed by stressful sensory input. She too needs calming, focusing input as well as breaks from distressing sounds, unpleasant tactile stimulation, and so on. A pediatric occupational therapist trained and skilled in working with children with sensory issues can observe, evaluate, and work with your child to help you develop a custom sensory diet for your child. However, it’s up to you and your child to implement the sensory diet every day and be alert to signs that the sensory diet may need adjusting because your child isn't functioning well. The goal for your child to be focused and alert throughout the day, and not to become overanxious or shut down when faced with sensations that are stressful for her. With a sensory diet, she can experience good self-regulation of mood and energy and focus—and smooth transitions from one activity to another.
The effects of a sensory diet are usually immediate AND cumulative. Activities that perk up your child or calm him down are not only effective in the moment; they actually help to restructure your child’s nervous system over time so that he is better able to:
tolerate sensations and situations he finds challenging
regulate his alertness and increase his attention span
limit sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors
handle transitions with less stress
Creating a Sensory Diet With or Without the Help of an OT
Ideally, in creating a sensory diet, you work with a sensory smart occupational therapist who is skilled and experienced at working with sensory processing issues. (Note that an OT who has only worked with young children may be challenged by working with teens or adults.) If you can't work with a sensory smart OT or at least consult with one, you can set up a sensory diet for your child yourself. You probably already do it to some degree simply because you have learned some tricks that work!
You’ll find many sensory diet ideas and accommodations for children, or teens, with SPD and/or autism in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child It can help you and your OT create the best sensory diet for your son or daughter.
One of the trickiest aspects of SPD is recognizing when a child is overreactive or underreactive in any given moment, and then adjusting sensory input so that she doesn’t experience “sensory overload.” Melting down or shutting down is stressful for the child, not just for those around her! The goal is to provide a “just right challenge” to help her get out of her comfort zone and tolerate a wider variety of input, and engage in sensory diet activities that are helpful for her, without pushing her too hard. Sometimes, kids are more willing to push themselves if they're coaxed by someone other than a parent—jus one reason why a sensory smart OT can be an invaluable partner for you. Raising a Sensory Smart Child, which includes the Sensory Checklist you can print here, is geared toward building your “sensory smarts” so that you can better help your child whether or not you are able to access and work with a sensory smart OT.
A good sensory diet takes into account all the senses that are involved in sensory processing disorder. There are 8 of them:
proprioception (body awareness)
interception (internal body awareness that tells us if we're hungry, need to use the toilet, overheated, and so on)
Watch a video about the 7 senses treated by sensory smart OTs here.
BUY Raising a Sensory Smart Child and learn more about helping your child who has sensory processing issues.