Kids with sensory processing issues respond to the environment in a number of ways. Although each child is unique, there are some common ways of reacting to sensory input.
Some kids overreact to outside stimulation and become overwhelmed and hyperactive. Some are underreactive and seek out sensory stimulation. Other kids may seem sluggish and need more input to function. Some kids may even show a combination of these reactions, depending on the environment.
If your child has sensory processing issues, you might be curious about a type of treatment called a sensory diet. Learn more about sensory diets and how they can help kids with sensory processing issues.
What is a sensory diet?
A sensory diet has nothing to do with food. It’s a carefully designed series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give each child the sensory input she needs. Sensory diets can be used as part of sensory integration therapy. Completing a sensory diet routine can help kids get into a “just right” state, which can help them pay attention in school, learn new skills and socialize with other kids.
What does getting into a “just right” state mean? For kids who tend to get overstimulated, their sensory diet can help them come down from an overloaded state and feel calm. Or kids who feel or appear sluggish can get into a “just right” state by doing activities that help them feel more alert.
Not all kids are able to recognize when they’re not in that “just right” state. Being consistent in implementing a sensory diet is key to helping your child become more self-aware and to making progress.
The type of professional who can help with this is an occupational therapist (OT). An OT can design a routine of activities for your child to do that fits her exact needs and schedule. The OT will do them with your child during therapy sessions. And your child can also do them at home with your supervision.
If you don’t have easy access to a therapist, there’s no harm in involving your child in some sensory activities on your own. Just know that if what you’re doing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean your child can’t benefit from a sensory diet. Instead it may mean that you need an OT’s help to develop a unique treatment plan for your child.
What might an example sensory diet look like?
A sensory diet is made up of a group of activities specific to your child’s needs. These depend on your child’s sensory issues. Let’s say your child is what OT’s call low arousal (meaning sluggish). Her routine might include:
- 20 jumping jacks
- Bouncing on a therapy ball 20 times
- Holding a Zen bug yoga pose for 10 seconds
Your child will repeat this circuit of activities a set number of times. Each session should last 10 to 15 minutes (the effects can last for hours). Once your child’s routine is set, she’ll do it two or three times throughout the day.
What activities might be included in a sensory diet routine?
Your child’s OT will observe her to see what sensory input she seeks or avoids. The OT takes those preferences into account when coming up with a routine. Here are some standard activities they draw on to create a sensory diet:
- Jumping jacks or lying on the ground and doing snow angels
- Log rolling (rolling back and forth)
- Swinging on swings
- Climbing ladders and sliding down slides at the playground
- Hopping up and down
- Push-ups (which can be modified to pushing off the wall or on their knees)
- Bouncing on a therapy ball with feet on the ground while clapping
- Rolling on a therapy ball on their belly, forward and backward
- Rolling a therapy ball on their back while they lie on the ground to “make a sandwich”
- Yoga poses like downward dog or happy baby (also known as Zen bug), holding a position for at least 10 seconds
- Facing a wall and pushing as hard as possible (variations include standing sideways and pushing against the wall with a shoulder, or pushing while sitting with the back against the wall, holding positions for at least 10 seconds)
- Heavy work activities at home with supervision, like sweeping/dry mopping, dusting, vacuuming, lifting and carrying grocery bags from the car into the home
- Animal walks such as crab walk (on all fours facing sky) or bear walk (on all fours facing ground)
A sensory diet may also include other activities that target specific sensory issues. One technique, the Therapressure Protocol (you may hear it referred to as brushing), can be very helpful to some kids. But it requires specific training from an OT and is not something parents can do without professional guidance.
In addition to physical activities, a sensory diet may incorporate other sensory experiences that help your child feel “just right.” These could include using fidget toys or weighted blankets, or chewing crunchy foods throughout her day.
Other Ways to Help
Kids often benefit if they can follow their sensory diet while at school. You can talk to your child’s teacher about allowing your child at least one structured break to complete her activities. If your child is self-conscious, there may be ways to modify the routine so she doesn’t stand out. And if your child has an IEP, certain activities could be added as accommodations in the IEP.
A sensory diet is usually just one part of a treatment plan for sensory processing issues. It’s most effective when combined with other interventions. Learn about some other things that can help with sensory processing issues, such as social skills groups or occupational therapy.
To learn more, hear an expert talk about sensory diets.