Sensory Diet 101
What is a Sensory Diet?
A sensory diet helps those children struggling with sensory challenges. While you may think this calls for eating healthier or eliminating certain foods from the child’s diet, a sensory diet actually has nothing to do with food at all.
A sensory diet is a specially curated set of activities designed to meet a child’s particular sensory needs and help them stay regulated. These activities are developed to address a child’s unique attention and arousal needs for different types of input: proprioceptive, touch, sight, sound, vestibular, taste, and oral motor. When these different forms of sensory input are used effectively, they can cause a steady release of neuro-chemicals that helps with a child’s overall regulation, essentially helping your child get to a “just right” state.
So, what does “just right” mean? Let’s say, for example, your child tends to get overstimulated by sensory input, then their sensory diet will include activities that help them come down from an overloaded state and feel calmer. If your child is under-responsive or sluggish, their activities will help them feel more alert.
Does your child need a sensory diet?
How do you know if your child would benefit from a sensory diet? Well, to be honest, we could all benefit from some form of a sensory diet. Think about your own needs... do you drink coffee or tea when you’re feeling tired? Do you take a mid-day walk to improve your focus in the afternoon? If yes, then you have a sensory diet, and you didn’t even realize it. A sensory diet can be especially beneficial for kiddos who struggle with daily routines, staying regulated throughout the day, impulsivity, or their overall arousal levels.
More specifically, these challenges may look like:
- An inability to follow directions or multi-step instructions
- Challenges with transitions
- Challenges maintaining their arousal level
- Frequent meltdowns (or they can’t self-regulate)
If you find yourself nodding as you’re reading this, then a sensory diet may be for your child.
How do you create a sensory diet?
You’ll first need to identify your child’s sensory needs and then determine when your child struggles the most during the day. Is it in the morning or at bedtime? During transitions? At a friend’s house? If you’ve answered yes to all of the above, pick your greatest struggle and start there. It’s prior to those times that you’ll want to introduce sensory diet activities to preempt a sensory overload or meltdown. A few examples:
- If your child regularly bumps into people or walls, or uses too much force when playing with toys or other children, he may need more proprioceptive input. Try some heavy work like wall push ups or pulling a full laundry basket across the room.
- If your child struggles with touching certain textures or with being messy, she may have tactile defensiveness. Encourage her to feel new textures by putting together a fun sensory bin, or have her play with playdough or kinetic sand.
- If your child has a tendency to chew on non-edible items or bites his nails, he may need more oral input. Try offering things he CAN chew like chewable jewelry or gummy candy or gum. You can also have him suck thick liquid through a straw or play bubble blowing games like the ones listed below.
- If your child can’t sit still while doing homework, she may need more proprioceptive or vestibular input. Before sitting down to start homework, have her bounce on a trampoline 10 times and then use fidgets, a wobble cushion, and/or a weighted lap pad while she’s working.
Keep in mind that sensory diets are not one-size-fits-all. Don’t get discouraged if the activities you choose at first don’t work for your child; through trial and error, you’ll find the best fit. And remember - sensory diets are hard work but they’re also supposed to be fun, so if your child shows distress when facing one activity, just move on to the next one. After you’ve started to use a sensory diet, regularly monitor your child’s behavior and make adjustments as needed. Consistency is key.
What are some examples of sensory diet activities?
Sensory diets should be goal directed and incorporate specific “stops” and “starts.” Be sure to incorporate a variety of sensory input, including movement and heavy work, as well as other senses such as touch, taste, scent, and hearing. It’s also helpful when sensory diets are based on choices so your child can pick her preferred task, and that you use a visual tool or schedule.
The amazing people over at Harkla have put together a comprehensive list of sensory diet activities for each of the sensory systems. The possibilities are endless, but here just a few examples:
- Proprioceptive — Animal walks, wheelbarrow walking, pushing/pulling a laundry basket full of books or toys around the room, climbing a rock wall, and steamrolling with a therapy ball or cushion.
- Vestibular — Jumping on a trampoline, swinging, rolling like a pencil, and somersaulting.
- Tactile — Sensory bins full of a variety of textures (shredded paper, beans, rice, etc.), messy play, and slime or putty.
- Auditory — Noise cancelling headphones, classical music, bell parade, neighborhood listening scavenger hunt, and Marco
- Polo Oral — Chewing gum, blowing through a straw, bubble mountain, and crunchy food.
- Olfactory — Follow your nose game, and scented playdough.
- Visual — Sunglasses, and kaleidoscopes.
All in all, a sensory diet will help you and your child establish a routine (kids LOVE structure), and provide comfort for unexpected or stressful situations. Not only that, they’re fun. As always, Foster Village is here to help, so let us know how we can support you!
Primary Source: Hill, J., & Harrington, R. (2020, November 24). The ultimate guide to sensory diets - activities, templates, and more. Harkla. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://harkla.co/blogs/special-needs/sensory-diets.