What’s A Sensory Diet?

You’ve been told that your child needs to go on a sensory diet. A what? A diet? I’m not talking about a food diet, although there is evidence that certain foods can have an impact on our nervous system. I’m referring to the sensory system and a sensory diet. This is the system that impacts the motor and behavioral system, depending on how the incoming sensory information is perceived and organized. I’m referring to the visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, touch as well as proprioception and vestibular information. We all have sensory needs, and even if you’re not aware, you probably have your own sensory diet. A sensory diet is just like it sounds…a diet for your sensory system. There really is not one diet that will meet everyone’s sensory needs, but I can give you some tips that might help you out.  First, we need to understand what type of sensory orientation we have. Below you will find three categories. Take a look and see which one describes your system the best. Yes, you may overlap a bit from one to the other. For example, you may find yourself a visual sensory over responder, preferring softer sights and avoiding bright ones. Whereas, you may crave deep pressure, and when it comes to touch, find yourself as a sensory seeker. That is fine. What’s most important is to understand your own sensory needs so you can better understand those of your child and others around you as well.

Sensory Over Responders.

These are individuals who over respond to stimuli. Things seem too loud, too hard, too heavy, too sticky, too wet and, well, just too much! Sensory Over Responders do not like to get messy. They avoid noisy, public places. A fireworks display can send them running for cover. The benefit of being over responsive? These individuals are generally organized, on time and on task. Strategies for sensory over responders should help to calm and reassure.

  • Providing a quiet environment  (tent, cave, tunnel, closet, etc.)
  • Use earmuffs or earplugs
  • Give notice when transitioning so as not to alarm them
  • Provide soft materials to calm  (pillows, beanbag chair filled with foam, stuffed animals, weighted blankets)
  • Use gentle music in the background and wind instruments to encourage deep breathing
  • Encourage bubble blowing
  • Place lava lamp, bubble tube or calming lights in their environment and cover or remove bright lighting
  • Encourage art activities that are calming like drawing, painting and weaving
  • Try a massage (deep pressure), pressure vest or clothing, rocking or deep breathing to calm
  • Aromatherapy for relaxing
  • Stories or books that reassure
  • Play non competitive games like catch with  scarves, parachute play or group games
  • Discuss tools that make them feel safe
  • Use deep pressure or weight to calm as well as calming swings
  • Exercise with stretching for calming. Yoga works well as does dance, gymnastics and swimming.

Sensory Under Responders. These are individuals who under respond to stimuli. They don’t hear their name when you call them. They lose their lunch, backpack, and keys. They drop things. They don’t sit up at the table. They slouch. They fall down. They forget and they are disorganized. Sensory Under Responders are often lost in a big crowd. They don’t raise their hand in class and often “fall between the cracks.” The benefit of being a sensory under responder? These individuals are generally relaxed and don’t over react under pressure. Strategies should help organize and alert.

  • Provide lists, visual cues and visual reminders
  • Give notice when transitioning so as to give them time to get ready
  • Provide seating and supports that encourage an alert posture (wedges, firm seats, back supports)
  • Use a metronomes and timers to keep alert and organized
  • Provide an organizer
  • Use aromatherapy for alerting
  • Encourage tasks that require hand-eye coordination
  • Try drumming or guitar for music and to encourage rhythm
  • Try art activities that use large muscle groups like painting, cutting and building
  • Set up obstacle courses to encourage coordination and motor planning
  • Work on balance skills using therapy balls, balance boards, climbing ladders or active swings
  • Work on strengthening skills with weights, resistance bands or medicine balls and putty
  • Stretch muscles to alert
  • Karate works well as do sports like rock climbing, hiking and biking

Sensory Seekers. These individuals are constantly touching, pushing, grabbing, shouting, jumping, biting and on the move. These children get in trouble a lot because they don’t know how to use their energy appropriately. The love recess and competition. Benefits of being a sensory seeker? These individuals tend to be alert, on and never tired. They are also highly creative. Strategies should re-direct their high energies into more purposeful activities.

  • Provide clear boundaries, rules and directions
  • Give them notice when transitioning so as to give time to calm down and orient
  • Provide seating and supports that allow movement without distraction (wiggle cushion, ball chair, rocking board)
  • Use timers as warnings, boundaries or guidelines
  • Try pressure or weighted vests for calming
  • Use chewing, deep pressure or heavy hand work to filter excessive movement
  • Use heavy balls or heavy work tasks to organize their muscles and movements
  • Set up obstacle courses to encourage coordination and motor planning
  • Use eye hand coordination to engage their minds with their bodies
  • Provide jumping and running outlets with directions as to when its appropriate
  • Encourage deep breathing with wind instruments, bubble blowing, yoga or singing
  • Use art activities that require a lot of heavy work: clay, sculpting, wood working
  • Do daily stretching for calming
  • Productive exercises include rock climbing, biking, hiking, karate, swimming, triathalon and gymnastics

So, as you can see each sensory system has its pluses and minuses or benefits and challenges. The key is to understand and address those dietary needs before things get out of control.  If you need some advise or help in understanding sensory systems, try your local occupational therapist. They are sure to understand!

4 years ago by 3

3 thoughts on “What’s A Sensory Diet?

  1. All children need sensory input and experiences to grow and learn, but this is even more crucial for the child with sensory integration dysfunction. A sensory diet is a planned and scheduled activity program implemented by an occupational therapist. They are designed and developed specific to meet the needs of the child’s nervous system. “Just as the five main food groups provide daily nutritional requirements, a daily sensory diet fulfills physical and emotional needs” (Kranowitz, 187). As explained earlier, stimulation of the “near” senses (tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive) leads to the growth of the neuron cell’s dendrites and synapses. A sensory diet includes a combination of alerting, organizing and calming techniques that lead directly to the “near” senses.

  2. Hypo-reactivity to sensory stimuli occurs when the sensory system is under-responsive; the normal processing of smells, sights, sounds, touch, and movement is dulled or under-developed. In this instance the brain is not processing the stimuli correctly. The hypo-reactive individual may fail to recognize stimuli that most would find alarming or strong. They may be unable to identify foods that have gone bad by smell, or have difficulty being able to smell things that are alarming or dangerous such as smoke, noxious/hazardous solvents, or something that is burning on the stove. They may be hypo-sensitive to pain and may barely feel a thing when getting shots, cuts or bruises.Under-responsive individuals can appear lethargic, lazy or unmotivated and be difficult to “get moving.” They may not seem to notice if their hands or face are dirty. They may be able to tolerate many movements without becoming dizzy, but have a hard time feeling parts of their body and knowing where those parts are in relation to the world around them (proprioception) making them clumsy or awkward. Waking up in the morning may also present a problem, as they may not even notice an alarm clock blaring.These individuals can be sensory-seekers, striving to make their sensory systems respond, but requiring stronger stimuli than most.

  3. What do you think is a benefit of having a sensory habitat at home or school? I think that it is a way to meet the needs of students with special needs at school. I have seen the calming effect a sensory habitat can have at school. Small sensory breaks spaced throughout the school day can help a student to handle the overload experienced during a typical school day. In the home it can have that effect, as well. A sensory habitat can be a “safe” place where a person can unwind from the stress of sensory overload, relax. and center his or her self.

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