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What is a Sensory Diet?

September 12, 2019

** The following is an excerpt from my book “Taming Your Child’s Outbursts with the Sensory Diet: A Parent’s Guide to Autism, ADHD, and SPD”**

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

There is debate as to whether different activities during the day are needed due to the child requiring different input for various tasks and settings. I have found that children with sensory difficulties have these difficulties across the board with regard to their systems being under- or over-responsive, so this alteration of activities is not fully necessary. Children, especially those with autism, thrive on routine, so making a specific activity list to do at specific times of the day creates an expected and easy-to-learn plan for your child. Because it will be frequently repeated, once they learn it, they will not have to constantly look for cues to begin or continue their own self-regulation. This allows them to take ownership of their regulation, and I have not met a single child who does not want to be their own boss the majority of the time.

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.

It’s important to schedule the routine organically based on the child’s schedule, so you are not stopping them in the middle of an activity because the clock tells you to. They likely follow a regulated schedule at school, so why not make this regulated as well? Aim to do the activity sequence at least four times spread relatively evenly throughout the day. Look at when they wake up, when they leave for school, when their lunch or recess time is at school, when they get home, afternoon activities like homework and down time, dinnertime, and bedtime. You can build in your activity sequence between segments of their existing schedule.
For example, here is how to incorporate an activity four times in an average day:

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?

To make the diet functional for your days and assure you can do it at various times without interrupting your day, keep the full duration of tasks to 5-10 minutes. This gives enough time to complete the sequence, but not so much that your child will get off-track and distracted from doing anything else after. It’s all about regulation!

Intensity: How much input does the child get from the activity?

While some activities may seem extra stimulating to us, like spinning in circles for a minute, for children with behavioral and sensory processing difficulties, they assist in regulating and calming. Intensity in certain activities can vary greatly — for example swinging or jumping can give the child very different internal sensations depending on whether they’re done quickly or slowly.

Consistency: You gotta keep going!

Consistency with the sensory diet, just like any diet, is crucial to success. If your child only does the activity once every few days, this gives the brain time to forget how the regulation feels and can even lead to increased negative behaviors and outbursts. If they do the activity just a few times and then forget about it, your child may feel the calm of moving out of the sympathetic nervous state, but will not yet have practiced enough to get the sequence in their brain. Initially, you as the parent need to be the regulator with the sensory diet schedule to ensure they understand the diet and get the greatest impact.

For Your Consideration

There are a few other components to note when looking into the specifics of a sensory diet to ensure that it will be as successful as possible in the self-regulation for your child.

Adult-Formulated

The first key is that it should be adult-formulated and initiated. Even though the child will be responsible for managing and learning the routine, an adult should spearhead the activities to guide them in the most helpful direction. You know your child best and see them most frequently, so start by selecting activities you know your child enjoys. You can even have them pick some to try, but ultimately when creating the sensory diet list, you’re the boss.

Individualized

The sensory diet should be individualized for each child based on their personal needs; needs you have already identified by observing their triggers and sensory systems, hyper- and hypo-sensitivities. When selecting activities, try a few and see how their body responds to the stimulation. After you try out an activity with your child, have them do a task that requires a calm body or focus. It doesn’t need to be anything super-involved and difficult — homework may not be the best for trials if you know that it’s a trigger — but think simple, like setting the table or cleaning up toys. From this, you can narrow your list down to activities after which you see them feel calm and collected, and during which they are able to listen and complete directed tasks.

Consistent Language

The third thing to note is consistent language. Call activities the same thing every time, refer to the body part used in the same way, and describe movement in the same way. This is important to avoid confusion and create more routine in the sensory diet. It is important to ensure that the language remains consistent at school as well, since most likely one of the diet times will be during school hours. You will need to write a note about and/or demonstrate the activity to teachers or aides, so they are aware of exactly how you explain a particular activity in the beginning stages when the child is just starting to incorporate the sequence into their daily routine. As an OT, I know kids often hear different words for things at home, resulting in occasional confusion and the kids sometimes even correcting us on terminology they are used to. Consistency is key in so many things, and language is no exception!

Not a Punishment

It is crucial that the child understands this regulation diet is not a punishment. Engage the child in the development of the plan and while trying it out, remind them of how they feel after the activities. Given some time, your child should begin to see the diet not as something they have to do but something that they get to do to help themselves regulate the way their body is feeling.

Done When Calm

Most importantly for success in the diet, make sure your child is in a calm state. When they’re not calm, it is difficult to talk to the child, increased agitation clouds their brain, and they are extra resistant to listening to directions, so give them time to calm down even if it is your daily designated time for the sensory diet. When calm and able to focus on directions, the child will be more compliant and will grow to look forward to the routine because they know it will help their body feel better, which is empowering!

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.

I like to specifically focus on the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Because both of these systems involve the most complete body and grounding experiences, I use them to regulate all the others. This is not to say that you cannot focus on other systems when composing your diet, like gustatory chewing items or auditory calming sounds, but for the purpose of this blog and in my experience, focusing primarily on these two systems is enough for creating a stabilizing effect for focus and attention with grounding.

About Alli

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.