Many kids have some level of sensory challenges that could benefit from a sensory diet. Get tips on creating one even if you don’t have an occupational therapist.
Do you know what it’s like to not be at peace in your body? Not just being unhappy about that 5 or 10 lbs you’d like to lose. But walking through your day feeling rough sandpaper sensations scraping against your skin. Or, often having someone point out that you have a bleeding skinned knee that you didn’t notice and aren’t quite sure how it happened. Or, walking around with crazy looking hair because you can’t stand having it brushed, combed, washed or cut. Because anything that manipulates the hair on your scalp hurts.
Kids with sensory processing issues often have difficulty being at peace in their bodies in the world. They may spend large parts of each day feeling like some element or elements in their immediate environment isn’t quite right. A sensory diet can help manage these challenges. Its primary goal is to help kids get to a “just right” state. Although the recommended route for creating a sensory diet involves working with an occupational therapist (OT), that’s not a practical option for many families. But, even so, you can still implement the elements of a sensory diet into your kid’s life to help manage recurring challenges. Keep reading for tips on how to do it.
Sensory Diet: A Quick Overview
Everyone needs varying amounts of sensory inputs throughout the day to function effectively. Just like you need varying amounts of nutritional energy (aka food). When you take steps to increase your alertness in the morning, pay attention in boring meetings, or decompress and wind down in the evening, you are acting to self-regulate your own sensory inputs.
But some kids with sensory challenges can’t do that on their own. They need help regulating the sensory inputs they encounter in any given day. And that’s where a sensory diet can help.
A sensory diet provides activities and strategies that help kids get the individual level of sensory input that they need. Neither too much, nor too little. But just right.
For kids who tend to get overstimulated in certain situations, a sensory diet can help them become more calm and attentive. For kids who tend to be under stimulated, a sensory diet can help them become more alert and focused. And, the same child can need different strategies throughout the day to manage fluctuating arousal states.
Which Kids Can Benefit From A Sensory Diet?
A wide range of kids can experience problematic sensory challenges even if they don’t necessarily have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Many kids who have ADHD, learning differences or developmental delays will also have some level of sensory challenges that could benefit from a sensory diet.
Related Content: This Is What You Need To Know About Sensory Overload
The Role Of An OT
An occupational therapist (OT) is a trained professional who can design an effective sensory diet tailored for your child.
Ideally, you would be able to work with a licensed OT to craft a tailored plan that meets your child’s needs. And one that could be incorporated in all major aspects of daily living including school. But, not everyone can arrange to work consistently with an OT. Weekly OT services can be a big commitment in time and money. And many reasons can preclude a family from being able to undertake that commitment right now.
But parents still have options. With sufficient information and resources, you can create an effective DIY sensory diet for your child. Even without access to a full sensory gym. (But, if you are looking for ways to outfit a home sensory gym on a budget, check out this great post from Thinking Moms’ Revolution for ideas and inspiration.)
What Do Effective Sensory Diets Look Like?
A sensory diet need not be overly regimented or a tedious chore. And, your likelihood of success will increase significantly if you are able to incorporate a sensory diet into your regular routine. Just like with a nutritional diet, strategies that feel artificial and forced may quickly fall by the wayside.
Key Elements of a Sensory Diet
The key elements for a sensory diet are identifying potential challenges that likely occur throughout the day, identifying potential sensory activities or strategies that can address those challenges, and incorporating the appropriate sensory activities at the appropriate times of day.
A sensory diet could consist of strategies and activities that are incorporated across a day or a week. And, it can also include as needed interventions. Strategies that you can whip out to defuse a coming meltdown.
A Sensory Strategy In Action
6 year old Moe’s body virtually shimmered with rage. He clenched his fists tightly. His body pitched slightly forward over partially bent knees. As if he were about to pounce onto something or someone and start wailing. And he stomped stomped stomped around the room in tight circles. Face scrunched up deciding whether to yell or cry.
Fast forward 90 seconds: Moe is hanging upside down by his knees gripped in his mom’s bear hug. Laughing gleefully. Explosion averted.
Hanging upside down can be a reliable sensory strategy that stimulates your child’s vestibular system, and help him feel more calm and focused. This is one of our favorite strategies that’s simple and can be quickly used almost anywhere. And, there are many ways you incorporate upside down vestibular activities into a sensory diet. This strategy gives special meaning to the phrase, “Turn that frown upside down!”.
Creating A Sensory Diet When You Don’t Have An OT
If you’re first starting with an entirely DIY approach, you should be prepared to do a lot of experimentation. Take notes and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. And, for things that look like they are working, make a note of why you think it is working and the time of day.
As you try different activities and strategies, keep two important guidelines in mind: 1) If the activity itself creates a strong negative reaction, then stop. Don’t force it. 2) If something isn’t showing any benefit after a reasonable trial, stop.
Prepare to be patient and dogged. Don’t expect immediate effects, particularly with older kids.
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First: Identify Sensory Needs & Challenges
First, you will need to identify what sensory needs exist and should be addressed. Think about situations, time of day or environments where your child frequently experiences challenges.
Some questions and issues to consider:
- Are there typical times when your child exhibits upset behavior, and are there triggers for that behavior?
- When do particularly problematic transitions occur?
- Does your child have strong negative reactions to routine hygiene like hair washing, showering, brushing teeth or cutting nails?
- Is he sensitive to certain items or textures on his hands or face? Such as paints, glue, or certain foods.
- Does he have motor-oriented issues like bumping or falling into things, or issues with balance and coordination?
- Does he have fine-motor challenges with things like snaps, buckles and buttons or cutting with scissors?
Examples of recurring sensory challenges:
- Often has difficulty in large public spaces or gatherings. May meltdown very soon after arrival. Possible reaction to bright lights, noises, or concerns about being touched.
- Constant climbing on or jumping off furniture.
- Plays too rough for siblings or other kids.
- Licking or chewing non-food items.
- Biting for no reason or when excited.
- Habitually walking on tippy toes.
Think of the day as blocks of time. For example, morning, transitioning to school, transitioning from school, after school, dinner, evening and transitioning to bed. Does your child need help during any or all of these periods to in in the “just right” state that’s appropriate for that time period? If so, what needs to be introduced to get him to that state? Meaning, does he need sensory inputs to make him more alert and attentive? Or, does he need sensory inputs to calm down.
Ultimately, you will want to incorporate activities or strategies that are targeted for that goal and that can be easily integrated into the particular time block.
What About School?
Obviously, there’s a big block of time missing here. School. And there’s a whole arena potentially involved there that could include things like a 504 plan, an IEP and the inclusion or intervention of various professionals. But for this post, we are focused on simple strategies that you can implement yourself to improve management of sensory challenges. And the focus is on the time periods outside of school.
But you should know that strategies for addressing sensory challenges could potentially be incorporated into a 504 Plan or an IEP. Check out Everything You Need to Know About IDEA, IEPs, and Section 504 Plans for a quick overview of these education issues. And, for more specific ideas focused on sensory challenges, take a look at Working With Schools, from the creators of Raising A Sensory Smart Child.
Second: Identify Potential Sensory Strategies
After you have identified your challenging areas, you should identify activities and strategies designed to meet the types of needs you’re looking to satisfy. You should consider what type of activity will address the challenge at hand. And, you will want to consider which sensory systems may be playing a role in various challenges.
Quick Recap Of The 7 Sensory Systems:
- Sight (visual)
- Touch (tactile)
- Smell (olfactory)
- Gustatory (oral)
- Sound (auditory)
- Vestibular (movement)
- Proprioceptive (coordination/body awareness)
Some tips on alerting vs calming vs organizing
For sensory processing purposes, activities are generally categorized as calming, alerting or organizing. Alerting activities help increase sensory arousal levels and responsiveness. Calming activities help decrease arousal and responsiveness. And, organizing activities help regulate sensory responses.
An effective sensory diet typically includes combinations of alerting, calming, and organizing activities throughout the day. The order and timing of the activities should track the needs of your child.
Here’s a quick overview of different types of activities that can be alerting, calming or organizing for different sensory systems.
- Alerting – movements that are fast and non-rhythmic
- Calming – movements that are slow and rhythmic
- Organizing – heavy work
- Different proprioceptive activities can have an alerting or calming influence depending on the child.
- Organizing – heavy work
- Alerting – light touch, cool temperatures,
- Calming – firm touch, heat, favorite fidgets
- Organizing – deep touch, weighted blankets
- Alerting – short, loud, non-rhythmic
- Calming – soft, rhythmical and of long duration
- Organizing – listening through headphones
- Alerting – bright lights, vibrant colors
- Calming – dim lighting, observing slow motion items like fish tank or lava lamp
- Organizing – visual schedules, visual timers
- Alerting – citrus, cinnamon, minty
- Calming – incorporate calming scents like lavender, vanilla or rose using lotions, foams or bath soaps
- Alerting – cold, tart/sour, spicy, crunchy
- Calming – warm, sweet
- Organizing – chewy, deep breathing
Strategies & Activities
When you are starting to test out different strategies, start with activities from the vestibular, proprioceptive and/or tactile categories. Some OTs believe that these sensory systems correlate with a significant portion of sensory processing challenges that they often see.
These are some simple activities that you could try for each set of sensory issues.
- Stair climbing
- Bouncing on bouncy ball
- Imitating animal movements – like crab walking or frog jumps
- Swinging and spinning
Proprioceptive (coordination/body awareness)
- Any type of “heavy work” that involves pushing or pulling
- Vacuuming, mopping, sweeping
- Walking around with full backpack
- Jumping rope
- Push ups
- Crash pad
- Resistance bands
- Massaging lotion into arms and legs
- Rubbing color bath foams on arms
- Finger paints
- Shaving cream art
- Squeezing playdough, silly putty or hand fidgets
- Sensory bin
- Weighted blanket/lap pad
- Bear hugs and tight squeezes
- Sniffing scented candles
- Aromatherapy oils
- Play a game with aromatic spices
Gustatory (oral motor)
- Vibrating toothbrush
- Eating crunchy foods
- Chew toys (made for kids)
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing whistles, kazoo, recorder
- Sipping through straws, particularly thicker liquids
- Edible slime
- Listening to music
- White noise machine
- Noise reducing headphones
- Sensory bottles
- Visually stimulating picture books
- Wearing sunglasses
- Using colored light bulbs and dimmers
- Sunglasses and portable car shade
- Pencil games like dot-to-dot and mazes
- Color by number
- I-Spy type games
- Visual tent
Here are additional places to look for more ideas that you can try at home:
- 50 Sensory Diet Activities (And Next Comes L)
This post also contains several great links to creating inexpensive DIY sensory tools.
- 100+ Awesome And Easy Sensory Diet Activities (Your Kids Table)
Third: Dive In And Take Notes
After you have identified activities that look promising (meaning ones that you can actually do and that you think your child will enjoy), now comes the process of trial and error. Be organized about it, and keep notes.
There are lots of different ways that you could choose to take notes or to track your efforts. But here’s a great one to start with from Understood.org. Use it as is, or as the basis for something you create on your own. Either way, nothing fancy is required. Taking notes on a spiral pad would be sufficient.
Try a strategy or activity several times before giving up on it completely. Also, think about whether the same strategy or activity may have better effect at a different time of day. What might work one day might not work the next day, so focus on being flexible.
Also, start slowly. Try working in 1 or 2 strategies at a time. This will give you a better understanding of what’s working and how long the effects can be. And, it helps avoid creating an overly negative response to experiencing too many changes at once.
Fourth: Evaluate & Incorporate
As you are going through the process, periodically review your notes to assess what seems to be working and what’s a complete bust. If there are some activities that achieve desired results (increasing calm and attentiveness; decreasing obvious anxiety; being able to cope with situations that were previously intolerable) and that your child obviously enjoys, then you should make those part of your regular sensory diet regime or toolbox.
But, if you reach the point that you’ve decided nothing is working at all, don’t write off the whole process. Your child could very well still benefit from a sensory diet, but you may need some professional assistance to figure out the right steps.
SAMPLE PROGRAM OF ACTIVITIES
- Vibrating toothbrush
- Fun jumping activities like exercises or small trampoline
- Breakfast that includes crunchy foods
- Playground or outdoor time; climbing equipment
- Crunchy snack; sucking thick liquids through straw – like smoothie or applesauce
- pushing/pulling activity; heavy work
- Jumping activity
- “Alerting” game like red light/green light, Simon Says, or freeze dance
- Help in the kitchen with kneading, rolling, stirring
- Setting table
- Quiet finger/hand activities like playdough, cutting activities, pencil/crayon activities
- Calming music
TRANSITIONING TO BED
Here are links to some other sample sensory diets for ideas and inspiration:
- Example From Fragilex.org
- Samples from Healthline.com (scroll to middle of page)
- Example from FriscoISD.org
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