What is a Sensory Diet?


No, you don’t need to feed your sensory kid a special diet of broccoli and papaya extract. In fact, a sensory diet has nothing to do with food!

A sensory diet is actually an activity ‘diet’, where you perform specific activities in order to fulfill the sensory needs of the individual. Think of it as a sensory multivitamin or supplement that the body needs. Basically, providing different sensory input on a regular basis helps train the body and nervous system to take in, process, and respond to sensory input better.

How Do Sensory Diets Work?

Our brains and nervous systems are amazing. Experiences and activities are capable of changing brain function. This is done by creating, organizing, and strengthening pathways in the nervous system.

In fact, one of the best ways to stimulate this change is through physical activity! It’s called neuroplasticity and it can happen at any stage of life, however, the brain has been shown to make the most dramatic changes in the first 5 years of life. Let’s make those years count!

No matter how old a person is, a sensory diet can still make changes to the nervous system, making taking in sensory information, processing it, and responding to it easier.

How Do I Start? 

If you think that your child has sensory processing challenges, you should talk to their pediatrician. Ask for an Occupational Therapy (OT) referral. 

Occupational Therapists trained in sensory integration are where the rubber will meet the road on discovering what type of sensory needs your child has and what can be done to help.

People who struggle with sensory regulation can benefit from doing a sensory diet on a regular basis. Working with an Occupational Therapist who is familiar with sensory processing disorder can be very beneficial. 

They will evaluate your child and establish a plan to work on their sensory needs, and provide education on a sensory diet that would be best for them. 

Why You Should Do a Sensory Diet at Home? 

It is important that your child is also doing these activities at home. The brain and nervous system make changes through repetition. Repeating sensory activities often, at a level that the child is able to handle and respond appropriately to, is key to laying down firm tracks in the nervous system for smooth sensory processing.

Sensory diets can be implemented in the clinic, school setting, at home and even other places your child struggles, like the park or the grocery store. 

After learning and understanding the basis of sensory processing disorder and how sensory diets work you can use those tools on a regular basis to help your child. 

As mentioned above, for a sensory diet to be most effective, consistent and regular performance is important. Engaging in a sensory diet one or two times a week in therapy will not result in as quick or significant of gains.

Establishing new routines with a sensory diet can be difficult or overwhelming. You may go to therapy and see the gym full of a wide variety of toys used to provide different sensory experiences. You may see fancy swings, an array of balls, fidgets, wiggle seats, weighted toys, trampolines, and other equipment and toys you don’t have and may feel that completing a sensory diet isn’t possible at home. 

But, breaking down the activities in a way that requires very little or no setup, and at the same time successfully affects your child’s sensory systems allows for improved consistency. And when consistency improves so do outcomes!  

Sensory Sid Activity Cards are designed to make doing a sensory diet regularly at home fun and easy. The activities included can be done with only the items found in most households. Having these cards empowers kids and families to be able to do something every day to make the next one better.

Two Different Sensory Diet ‘Prescriptions’

There are two different reasons that Occupational Therapists prescribe sensory diets. One: they want your child’s overall sensory processing to get better! This means that they want your child to take in, interpret, and respond to the sensory input they receive appropriately. As we’ve discussed above, this happens with practice, particularly by doing physical activities.

This type of sensory diet designed for overall improvement in processing provides a variety of sensory input. Usually, it includes activities that involve vestibular (moving through space), active and passive proprioception (body position awareness and self-movement), and tactile (what you feel) input. We will talk more about each of these important categories down below.

The Four Parts of a Sensory Diet

A basic sensory diet can be broken down into four parts, and though there are more areas of sensory, these four sections can be a good place to start. The four areas are vestibular, active proprioception, passive proprioception, and tactile. 

Vestibular

Vestibular activities are usually ones that help increase arousal, they can ‘wake’ you up and help make you become more alert. Sensory input can affect people differently, so not every person will respond the same way to an activity. Examples of vestibular activities are swinging, spinning, rolling, somersaults, jumping, and hanging upside down. These are all activities that move the body through space.

Proprioception

Active Proprioception

Active proprioception (heavy work) activities also can help to increase arousal for children who are low arousal by nature. They can also help fulfill the sensory needs of children who seek proprioceptive input. Examples of active proprioceptive or heavy work activities are bear walks, crab walks, pushups, wall sits, wall pushes, and yoga poses such as down dog or boat. Any activity that actively uses the muscles, particularly with good pressure and effort, is using the active proprioception system.

Active proprioceptive activities can be either static (staying in place) or dynamic (moving). Performing activities that are static may be more calming for an overactive, busy, sensory seeker.  A dynamic activity may be more alerting for someone who needs that extra input to ‘wake up’. Most yoga poses, such as down dog, would fall into the category of a static activity. Jumping jacks, star jumps, frog hops, and bear walks would be dynamic. 

Passive Proprioception

Passive proprioception activities are typically calming; they can help settle the sensory system and help people calm down after overstimulating events. Passive means that the person receiving the input is not ‘doing’ anything, but rather this input is being applied to them. Examples of passive proprioceptive activities are squishes, joint compressions, massage, bean bag tapping, and rolling up in a blanket. 

Tactile

Tactile (touch) activities can often be calming as well, though for some kids this can be overstimulating if they are sensitive to certain tactile stimuli. Examples of tactile activities are playing in a rice bin, water, bubbles, skin brushing, and playing with or touching different fabric textures. 

For our seekers, it is important to find activities that help fulfill their needs in positive, meaningful ways so they don’t have to spend all day searching for that input, and trying to fulfill (usually unsuccessfully, and inappropriately) the input their body needs to stay regulated. 

For our avoiders, it means working with their sensory systems to help them learn how to process the input more effectively in order to better tolerate the sensory input that is difficult for them. This might be gradually exposing them to different textures, working up to the texture or type of touch input that is most difficult, and helping them to desensitize to this gradually. 

Regulation and the ‘Just Right’ State

The second type of sensory diet is one designed to achieve regulation. Think of sensory regulation as a dial (or several dials). We are surrounded by sensory information all the time and the nervous system not only needs to take in, interpret that information, and form a response, but it has to prioritize that information for what we should pay attention to or focus on. 

Is the sensation of hunger the one to tune in to or the sound of someone’s voice? Most of us are wearing clothes right now but it’s likely you weren’t thinking about the feel of your pants until now. 

We are all receiving lots of sensory information. Sensory regulation is when the nervous system is able to ‘adjust the dial’ of sensory input to effectively manage and prioritize the input. Getting those dials tuned just right is frequently known as the ‘just right’ state in the OT world. 

This is what we aim to achieve for a child, as they are best able to learn and function when calm and focused. This is also when they are able to make the most changes to their nervous system. That is why finding the time when your child seems the most regulated is when you can gently present a more challenging activity.

So How Do You Use a Sensory Diet to Regulate?

People who struggle with sensory processing can become overwhelmed or underwhelmed in certain situations. They can become hyperactive, get frustrated easily, or become upset due to the sensory stimulus they are receiving.  This can cause obvious issues in daily life and participation in school-based activities. 

That’s where this type of sensory diet comes in. To help a child regulate in undesired sensory situations, a sensory diet can assist in providing the right tools and adaptations to make daily life that much easier. 

Each child has patterns of how they respond to sensory input. You should work with your child’s OT to learn what types of input will help regulate your child. There are, however, some generalizations that can be made to get you started. Don’t forget to carefully observe your child’s responses-they can be different from the ones described here, even on a day to day basis.

Vestibular or activities moving quickly through space are often alerting. You can use these if your child is approaching a task with low arousal. 

Is your child having a hard time getting moving to get ready for school? Instead of telling them for the 3rd time to hurry up and get dressed, try pausing for a moment and asking them to spin really fast 10 times before putting on their shirt and then spin 10 times really fast the other way before putting on their pants. Fun for them results for you.

Passive proprioceptive activities are often calming. That’s why stopping in the grocery store to give your overwhelmed child a big, long bear hug can help bring them back into a better state. 

You can also use these types of activities in preparation for something that may be overwhelming. For instance, if your child has a hard time with the transition of leaving you and walking into school, try doing a little massage of their arms and legs before you leave home or before they get out of the car.

There are many other tools to use for passive proprioceptive input. Using weighted or compression vests can be a great way to provide a little grounding input without requiring one-on-one attention. Often kids seem to have a natural preference and positive response to one or the other. If you are able to have your child try them, watch for their response. 

If you find that either weight or compression really helps your child focus, there are other effective aids like weighted blankets, hats, wrist and ankle weights, and compression sheets and clothing. It is important to note, however, that these should be used distinctly for the times it is most important for them to calm and focus. If they are worn and used all day, every day they can lose effectiveness.

A Word of Caution

When working on sensory diets it is often tempting to force a child to do something, particularly when it seems so easy for you or other children. Try not to forget that for many people with sensory processing disorder input that they don’t process well can often present as pain. 

Remembering how the nervous system makes changes, we know that fear or stress can decrease the effectiveness of making change. A child who is scared of the sensory activities will make less positive changes in their brain, than one who is calm. 

So, how do you address the difficult stuff? We are not saying to avoid what is hard, we just know that how and when the sensory challenges are presented is important. Try doing difficult activities when you know your child is already doing well. Then you know they are more primed to handle something challenging. 

For instance, if your child struggles with getting dressed because they hate the feeling of their clothes, try taking the time to do a sensory diet for overall processing first. Because often doing these activities can help them regulate and get into that ‘just right’ state, and ready to handle something more challenging. 

You may also like to try doing a tolerable amount of skin brushing before dressing as well. Click here for a brief description on how to do this at home or ask your child’s OT.

Grading

The other key for making a sensory diet effective is being able to adjust how difficult the activities are. If a child with vestibular hyper responsiveness (they may be scared to move through space too quickly) is pushed down a slide when they didn’t want to be, the experience may be a negative one rather than fun. 

It may also be that it isn’t helping their nervous system create those positive connections in learning how to process that movement sensation better. 

Occupational Therapists use something called grading. It means adjusting the activity up or down in difficulty to make it a ‘just right’ challenge. So, in the instance above, perhaps that means placing the child halfway down the slide instead of starting at the top. Or maybe it even means only sliding down the parent’s legs. 

Grading is the art of determining what a child can handle while still providing the opportunity for a little challenge and growth.

Every Day a Different Day

As a parent or caregiver of a child with sensory processing disorder, it means that paying attention to their responses to different kinds of input is critical. And it may be different every day. 

Your child may be able to handle going down the slide one day and have a meltdown over the same slide the next day. There are many pieces in play here. Did they sleep and eat well? Are they dysregulated? Are they going through a growing cycle that just seems to tax their body and nervous system more? Meet them where they are for that moment and do your best to help them get back on track.

Our nervous system is amazing in its ability to change. Performing a sensory diet daily helps us learn how to process sensory input more effectively, allowing for individuals to stay regulated, focused, and ready for action.