What is a sensory diet?
A sensory diet, first created by occupational therapists Wilbarger and Wilbarger (1991) , is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs. This plan provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day. For example, some people may feel overwhelmed or overloaded and need to get to a calmer state; some may feel lethargic or sluggish and need some activities to feel alert.
The main goal of a sensory diet is to prevent sensory and emotional overload by meeting the nervous system’s sensory needs; however, it can also be used as a recovery technique. Understanding a child’s sensory profile and the activities which create calmness and regulation can really help when a child feels overwhelmed and out of control. Engaging children in sensory experiences on a regular schedule can support focus, attentiveness and interaction. Children may feel less anxious when they feel comfortable and in control.
An occupational therapist (OT) usually designs a sensory diet. Parents and caregivers can then use the tailored activities at home; teachers/educational assistants can use it at school. The reason it is recommended to consult with an OT who has experience with sensory processing issues is because one the trickiest aspects of sensory difficulty is recognizing when a child is overreactive or underreactive in any given moment, then adjusting sensory input to meet them where they are, and providing the right challenge to help them move forward into a “just right” state of being.
Observational checklists can be used to gather information about a person’s sensory profile. There are numerous sensory checklists available online or in books such as Answers to Questions Teachers Ask about Sensory Integration or Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration.
Activities for a Sensory Diet
Certain activities address specific sensory systems. Activities will also vary based on age and ability. Here are some examples of activities that can be used as part of a sensory diet:
Proprioceptive input can be achieved through lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects. Some ideas are:
- pushing a stroller or cart
- pulling a wagon filled with objects
- carrying a backpack
- playing hopscotch
- push ups against the wall
- lifting weights
- wearing a weighted vest
Vestibular input (sense of movement) is created by any type of movement such as spinning or swinging. Some ideas are:
- swinging on a swing
- lying in a hammock
- spinning on a Sit n’ Spin or disc
- jumping jacks
The tactile sense detects light touch, deep pressure, texture, temperature, vibration, and pain. Some ideas are:
- drawing in sand or salt
- hand massage
- high fives
- play with therapy putty, squeeze balls, a band to pull on
- crocheting, knitting or sewing
- messy play with shaving cream or foamy soap
Auditory input is what we hear and how we listen. Some ideas for calming and organizing auditory input are:
- listening to music
- listening to sounds in nature
- use noise cancelling headphones to dampen sound
- playing a musical instrument
- listening to running water
Some environments can be too visually stimulating such as classrooms with busy bulletin boards, brightly lit rooms, bright colors or busy patterns on the wall or curtains. To reduce visual stimulation:
- keeps areas organized and clutter free
- store items in bins or boxes
- avoid using fluorescent lighting
- use neutral paint colors
Smelling certain odors can odors stimulate, calm, or send a person into sensory overload. When it comes to smells, think about:
- exploring calming scents to find preference. Lavender, vanilla, jasmine and rose are examples of calming scents.
- exploring alerting scents like peppermint or citrus
- sniffing different herbs and spices
- some people don’t like scents at all. Look for unscented products such as detergents, soap or shampoo.
Taste input is perceived by the tongue but how it’s interpreted or experienced is strongly influenced by the sense of smell. When it comes to taste, experiment with different flavors. Oral sensory processing not only involves taste, but tactile and proprioception too.
- Strong tastes can stimulate the undersensitive child.
- Involve children in food preparation to increase their likelihood of trying new foods.
- Offer crunchy foods such as raw veggies, popcorn, pretzels, apples for those who like to chew.
- For the child who likes to chew, use chewy jewelry.
- Other ideas for chewy foods are fruit leather, beef jerky, marshmallows or raisins.
- For children who like to suck or lick things, try popsicles, ice cubes, or drinking through a straw.
These are just a few of the optional activities that can be used to created a sensory diet. To have a look at some examples, click here. Pinterest also has lots of examples of sensory diets and templates. There are also some great printables organized by sensory system and age. Work with an experienced OT who not only can create a sensory diet, but can also assist with visual supports and scheduling the activities throughout the day.
Ideas for classroom accommodations can be found here and sensory diet activities for at home here. Some resources to support teens and young adults are The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up – Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder in the Adolescent and Young Adult Years and The Sensory Team Handbook.
If you are looking for ideas on how to support autistic adults with sensory issues, have a look at the book Sensory Issues for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Chara, K. and Chara, P. (2004). Sensory Smarts – A Book for Kids with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders Struggling with Sensory Integration Problems. Jessica Kingsley Press.
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