What is a Sensory Diet?
September 12, 2019
In my work, I have unfortunately come across too many instances in various pediatric settings when time for parent education was limited, resulting in me having to leave out very useful information that would have been so helpful to parents. Frequently, the buzzword “sensory diet” is presented to parents by an occupational therapist. After introducing the term, the therapist can create the sequence for the child to use throughout the day, yet too often, the therapist is not able to do so. But my reason for writing this book is to teach you, as the parent, that you are capable of creating this, too.
What does sensory diet mean, exactly? The term is a bit deceptive because it might conjure up images of food, but in reality it has nothing to do with eating. A sensory diet is a personalized activity schedule for a child that provides them with a means for getting the appropriate sensory input to the nervous system for maintaining arousal and attention throughout the day so that they can participate in everything they want to do. The diet is individualized for each child based on their personal needs; needs that you have already been identifying. I have found it is best to limit this program to around five to eight activities, done in a regular sequence. The activities in your diet are not intended to be elaborate with lots of fancy equipment. Simple is better when working with a child, completing activities such as jumping jacks, push-ups, or dancing. I will go more in depth in other posts, but for now, it is important to understand more about what a sensory diet is.
Who Can Benefit?
A sensory diet is not specifically prescribed for any given diagnosis or disorder. You may have heard of it being referred to when discussing children with autism, but it is in no way autism-specific. Because the sensory diet deals with sensations of the body (it’s in the name!), the schedule can be created for anyone who needs to regulate their sensory system. This includes, but is not limited to, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, behavioral regulation difficulties, and undiagnosed sensory difficulties. I state children here because that is my primary focus in work and where I have seen these schedules have success, yet regulation and routine is necessary for people of all ages.
The Routine of Activities
Most people associate diets with food, regulating what food to eat, when to eat, and how much food can be eaten based on the program. Think of the sensory diet along the same lines. Before I get to the “what” component though, the “when” and “how much” need to be addressed first.
1. Morning before school, for example if they leave for school at 8 a.m., schedule the activity sequence for 7:30 to keep them alert and start the day on a good note.
2. During recess/break (have a teacher or aide assist with adding activities into break time — once your child knows their own sensory diet routine, this should be easy for them to complete!).
3. Upon coming home from school, before engaging in any homework or other activity.
4. After dinner, at the beginning of the bedtime routine.
Three main important factors of the diet to focus on are duration, intensity, and consistency.
Duration: How long should the entire sequence last?
Intensity: How much input does the child get from the activity?
Consistency: You gotta keep going!
For Your Consideration
Not a Punishment
Done When Calm
The importance of a calm state goes beyond the child. Do you ever notice your feelings when your child is starting a meltdown at an inopportune time? Kids can feed off the emotions of people around them, especially those who are already in a heightened emotional state. This can cause their outburst to elevate, then your agitation to rise…this cycle can make a simple situation escalate quickly.
Alli Carbone, MS, OTR/L, CCYT, is a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in using yoga for sensory processing skills and education for the whole family.