What is a “Sensory Diet”?

By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L

A “sensory diet” is a treatment strategy occupational therapists use to help children learn to process and understand sensory information from their environment and their own body to more effectively interact within the environment and with others. The term sensory diet was first coined and originated by occupational therapist, Patricia Wilbarger. A sensory diet is meant to be individualized to the child so that the activities provided are a ‘just-right’ challenge for the child. The “just right” challenge is defined as “a challenge that is on the edge of competency and engages the drive for mastery.”

A sensory diet is not too hard, yet not too easy. An effective sensory diet should include a wide variety of activities within the child’s day that provide a variety of sensory input for play and learning. An effective sensory diet should also be a collaboration with the client, family, and caretakers.

Occupational therapists often use the analogy of comparing a sensory diet to a balanced food diet to help parents and caretakers understand we need a variety of activities that feed all our sensory systems to allow them to work well together. Just like a well-balanced diet is often tailored to our individual bodies for different nutritional needs at different points in our lives, a sensory diet is an ongoing list of activities that is established over time and modified as needed to help address the imbalance in the child’s sensory processing abilities or as the environment changes and the demands shift.

A sensory diet is designed to help keep the child calm and organized via activities that based on a child’s preferences which then helps them to be able to learn, attend, and fulfill social expectations. As a child learns to remain calm and organized, they learn to better self-regulate and hopefully move from depending more on others to being more independent in managing their sensory needs. The goal of any sensory diet is to help overtime retrain your child’s brain to process sensory information in a more typical way so that can perform at their own unique best.

Each child has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, if a child is more sensory seeking, they may benefit from adding more movement and stimulation that includes heavy work as well as other sensory stimulation (e.g. tastes, colors, smells) to help achieve a calm, organized more focused state so they are not constantly on the go looking for input. If a child is more sensory avoiding, they may also benefit from heavy work but may need it more graded and introduced slowly over time. The child may benefit more from activities that focus on reducing sensory input and breaking tools that allow them to limit information from their environment. One of the trickiest aspects of developing and implementing any sensory diet, is beginning to recognize your child’s signs and signals as well as starting to recognize when your child is over-reacting, shutting down, or under-reacting and adjusting the sensory input so your child remains just right and able to function.

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When occupational therapists provide ideas for a sensory diet, they keep in mind several different guiding principles:

  • Frequency of input: The frequency of need varies for each child and should be guided by observations of the child before and after each activity.
  • Intensity and duration of input: How much time you spend on each activity and how much sensory input (e.g. how much weight to use to push/carry/drag/lift, how loud to play the music, what type of tactile media to present, how much tactile media to present, etc.) is directly related to the child and how the child is doing not only on a specific day but also at a specific moment in time.
  • Timing of activities: Sensory diet activities are meant to be proactive and are best used before as well as during activities that are known to be tricky to the child.

    For example, if you know sitting for a mealtime is difficult for your child, you might want to help prep your child’s body and sensory system prior to sitting down. These activities should be tailored to your child; however, heavy work activities that actively require the child to use their muscles to push, pull, carry, drag, climb, bury, dig, suck, etc. are usually beneficial to many children. Sitting for a mealtime is a very complex sensory activity that involves all your sensory systems working together. You can try prepping your child’s sensory system prior to sitting down by re-arranging the chairs around the table and cleaning the table with spray bottles and towels to dry. You can try exploring different options for their chair- maybe your child might do well with a move-n-sit cushion or having a band around the legs of their chair to kick against. Your child might be bothered by the sounds of other people chewing their food and might benefit from noise cancellation headphones. Your child might be bothered by the sights of all the different foods or by all the foods touching each other. There are many different ideas and strategies to help both of those difficulties.

Your occupational therapist may ask you to become the detective and create a daily log of behavioral changes. You are your child’s best advocate and are the best expert in your child’s abilities and areas of growth. By creating a log of activities and your child’s responses to activities over the course of different days and different times, you can help better curtail some of the trial and error process that is inherent within any sensory diet due to our own individuality.

The sensory diet activity that might have worked well for another child with a similar difficulty, may not necessarily work for your child. The various times of the day and different environments may be work better for certain activities. Not all strategies work all the time. It is important to keep track of all the different activities your child responds positively to, so that you can create variety and have more than one strategy to help your child.

With help from an occupational therapist, your child can develop the ability to process sensory information in an adaptive manner and learn strategies to help him or her cope with everyday experiences. Learn more about our program. 

Resources:

  • Shiela Frick and Julia Wilbarger – “Creating Effective Performance, Precision, and Power in Treatment and Sensory Diets”
  • The Out of Sync ChildThe Out of Sync Child Has Fun, Growing an In-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz
  • childdevelopment.com
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