Hint: It’s not food!
The same way your child needs a diet of food throughout the day in order to be nourished, hydrated, and function at maximum capability, s/he also needs a ‘diet’ of different types of sensory input throughout the day in order to be alert, in control, and function at maximum capability. A “sensory diet” consists of the exact right sensory input someone needs in order to go about her day fulfilling her potential.
What is sensory input?
Any type of experience that stimulates the eight senses — the five far senses: Vision (sight), Auditory (sound), Olfaction (smell), Gustation (taste), Tactile (touch, or feel); and the three near senses: Vestibular (balance), Proprioception (sense of muscle and joint movements, external body awareness); and Interoception (sense of what is happening inside our body — internal body awareness). For a ‘refresher’ on the senses, see this post
How does a sensory diet work?
A sensory diet is an “action plan” to incorporate the different sensory input your child needs at different times during the day in order to stay in a just-right state. The term was initially coined by OT Patricia Wilbarger. We generate sensory input, or use already existing input, so we can stay in a regulated state of mind and function successfully.
Who needs a sensory diet?
Actually, we all do. And we all have one — everyone uses sensory strategies, usually without even realizing it, to calm down, wake up, stay focused, etc. Are you ever bored in a meeting? If so, what do you do to stay attentive? Perhaps you take a sip of coffee? Get up to get a drink of water? Use your pen as a fidget toy? And how about when you’re stressed? Do you like to take a hot bath? Listen to relaxing music?
If you find it difficult to realize what you need to do to re-focus, de-stress, etc., you might benefit from having a list of sensory activities to try — and that’s what a sensory diet gives your child.
Are all sensory diets the same ‘flavor’ input?
No, there are two basic ‘flavors’ of sensory activities: up-regulating (alerting, arousing, waking up) and down-regulating (calming, soothing). Some people need more sensory stimulation, some people need to be calmed down.
That sounds pretty simple.
Sometimes the effects of an activity can be alerting for one person in one particular situation, but calming for another person in a different situation. For example, bouncing on a trampoline can stimulate the proprioceptive sense and get someone’s engine running in high gear (alert them), and it can also help an overstimulated person release energy in order to feel calmer.
In general, a child whose engine runs high needs more calming sensory input, and a child whose engine runs low needs more arousing sensory input.
Know your child
Each child’s sensory needs are unique. That’s why each child’s sensory diet is individually tailored to that individual child and her individual environment/situation and preferences/needs. This unique program of sensory and motor activities helps your child manage his sensory needs and reduces the interference those needs cause in his ability to pay attention. It brings her engine back to the “just right” energy level for the task in front of her, allowing her to focus, interact with others, adapt to situations, etc.
What do I as a parent actually do?
You monitor your child, and step in before a problem occurs. You then provide an activity to bring your child back to the “just right” state, with her engine running neither too high nor too low.
So a sensory diet is both a treatment strategy for problem behavior AND a preventative tool to ward off behavioral challenges before they occur.
But how do I know what my child needs?
Watch your child’s behavior for clues. Nobody knows him better than you do. If you are trying to get him ready for school, and he’s jumping on the bed, make time in your morning routine for him to jump for a few minutes before you get him dressed. The sensory input meets the sensory need he has in the mornings, and then that need will no longer distract him from focusing on getting ready.
So if I establish a routine and do the same things at the same time every day, my kid will be perfectly balanced all the time, right?
Nope. Every day is different. You need to adapt to your child’s particular needs on a particular day. Of course, some things are going to be pretty much the same — most likely, your child always wakes up full of energy, like in the example above, so you know he needs jumping-around time before you can hope to get breakfast in him and clothes on him.
Basically, a sensory diet should consist of some regularly-scheduled sensory activities that address known situations, and some sensory activities that you offer as they’re needed — or, ideally, right before they’re needed.
What if I can’t predict what she needs?
That’s life! You can’t always predict it. Also, your child’s needs change from day to day (sometimes even from moment to moment!). So you have to figure out what types of activities help in general and keep a list of those activities in your ‘backpack’ to pull out and use as needed.
Identify, identify, identify, identify, identify
Of course, there are some ways you can train yourself to predict at least some problem areas/times, and provide the solutions before the problem occurs. Here are the areas to identify and the action to take for each one.
Identify the situations or times of day that almost always make your child feel overwhelmed, have excess energy, have too-little energy; etc.
Knowledge really is power — if you know what’s coming, you can head it off with the proper kind of sensory input.
Identify the sensory inputs your child needs more of throughout the day.
Add those inputs at appropriate times.
Identify the sensory inputs your child needs less of throughout the day.
Remove those inputs and replace them with ones that work better for your child.
Identify which sensory inputs your child enjoys and doesn’t enjoy — if s/he doesn’t like an activity, offering it isn’t going to be helpful.
Provide activities your child really enjoys as alternatives.
Identify an activity or object that almost always works to calm, or alert, your child, such as a fidget toy.
Always keep that object easily available.
Don’t forget to involve your child
Your child knows intuitively what she needs. If she’s jumping on the bed, she needs to jump. Of course, the action has to work for the rest of the family too. If your sensory child’s sibling is asleep in the next bed, jumping on the bed is not going to end well. So you need to offer similar options. Maybe she can jump on a mini-trampoline in the basement. Perhaps she can do jumping jacks in the living room or jump off the bottom step of the staircase a few times. But simply yelling, “No jumping on the bed!” without providing an alternative jumping situation solves nothing. Choice of activity isn’t random; you need to match sensory activity to sensory need. Listening to classical music won’t replace jumping.
To sum it up
A sensory diet fills sensory needs as — or before — they occur. That’s why you need to fill your backpack with different types of sensory strategies, input and modifications, so you can keep your child at his/her optimal functioning level throughout the day.
Enlist the help of a professional
Ideally, a licensed occupational therapist who has experience in sensory processing disorder should be the one to evaluate and determine your child’s sensory diet. She or he will work very closely with you to set up an individual plan for your child.
Try to start keeping track of specific challenges in your child’s life in order to determine what sensory needs might be associated with them. In the next post, we will discuss working with an OT on planning and testing a plan for your child’s sensory diet.
Have you ever tried a sensory diet before? Will you try one now? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.
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I look forward to hearing from you!
All the best,