What is a Sensory Diet for Autism? | #parenting


It was March 2020 and the world had just shut down. My five-year-old had just been admitted into the gifted program at school but had not started in his new classes yet.

Suddenly, I was supposed to homeschool a not-yet-diagnosed child on the autism spectrum who was smarter than me already.

My ever-moving, always talking, easily bored, computer work-hating kindergartener was being required to do school work that was too easy for him online. He was miserable.

Owen had not been home all day every day since he was a baby. He loved his school, his routine, and his friends. I had never had to keep him busy all day while trying to educate him per someone else’s requirements.

Every day, for hours, we experienced his violent meltdowns. I was terrified. I began looking for ways to keep his mind and body busy. A sensory diet was the last thing I wanted to bother with–or so I thought. 

What is a sensory diet?

When I first heard the words “sensory diet” I thought it was something used to help convince finicky eaters to eat things they didn’t want to. When I found out that it is actually a kind of routine addition to helping a child manage their sensory experiences, I was all ears.

A sensory diet can help with sensory processing by giving a child an alternative activity when they need it. It is a way to increase their sensory smarts, increase body awareness, and help them with organizing input.

It is a way to help children with sensory processing issues bring order to their overstimulated or understimulated sensory systems. This helps them regulate their response.

When we started implementing sensory strategies into Owen’s day, he began to melt down less and was able to do his work in much more enjoyable ways. 

His sensory diet continued and is now one of his favorite things. An exercise ball is even utilized in the classroom now that he is back in school. 

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Who can benefit from a sensory diet?

Many children, both on and off the autism spectrum, experience sensory processing issues.

Sensory issues stem from the brain’s inability to process or regulate its response to stimulation. This results in a need to regulate sensory systems in other ways.

A child who has sensory needs may need to work harder to remain focused. Their mental or visual attention may be longer or shorter than other children.

Sensory input from an outside source as part of their every day routine can help those who struggle.

Symptoms of sensory processing issues

A child may experience overload due to sensory input during activities. These children may be sensory-avoiding. 

Self-regulation may be more difficult when a child’s nervous system requires more input. These children may be sensory seeking.

Symptoms of sensory processing difficulties can include:

  • bouncing off the walls kind of energy
  • difficulty focusing
  • getting lost in thought and seeming “out of it”
  • melting down, most often in a pattern of behavior i.e. every day at a certain time or after certain activities
  • difficulty sleeping
  • managing voice levels during certain activity or events

…and more.

Here is a list of things that may appear on a sensory diet “menu”. There are many more items, but this can provide an idea.

  • playing musical instruments
  • sit-n-spin toys
  • chewing gum
  • use noise-cancelling headphones
  • Playing in a pan of shaving cream or  kinetic sand
  • Sitting on an exercise ball
  • sensory bins
  • exercising
  • eat crunchy or chewy foods
  • Dry brushing
  • manipulating putty
  • use deep pressure devices such as a weighted vest 
  • playing with fidget toys
  • touching texture-rich items
  • Swinging (our hammock swing has been one of our best and most consistent resources)

Sensory systems

There are eight sensory systems. A child with sensory processing problems may have more than one of these systems affected. Different systems need different sensory activities to help them regulate. A child’s sensory activities will help them process the stimulation of the system the activity engages.

Tactile input

The tactile system is another way of saying “sense of touch”. Sensory bins are one way to help children regulate their tactile input.

Vestibular input

Vestibular input deals with the awareness of movement. Many activities such as dance, tumbling, walking, exercising, and swimming is sensory diet activities that can help regulate this sensory system.

Taste input

Taste input goes beyond the way something actually tastes, and deals with the texture and even smell of things in the mouth. Many children who struggle with sensory processing are labeled “picky eaters”. In reality, they are not being stubborn, their body is unable to process the sensations of their food.

Eating something chewy or crunchy can help a child regulate the taste system.

Auditory input

Children who have trouble organizing auditory input experience processing problems in their auditory system. Listening to music or sitting in a silent room may help them manage this.

Visual input

The processing of visual stimulation can be quite overwhelming. Some children benefit from sitting down and watching a movie. Others need to have a calm, non-visually stimulating environment after being bombarded with images.

Proprioceptive input

The proprioceptive system deals with the awareness of things in our environment and how they relate to us. A child who struggles with this system may be clumsy, not be able to walk in a straight line or have balance challenges.

Olfactory input

The olfactory system involves the sense of smell. Some children are severely overwhelmed by strong odors, to the point of distraction. Others may be soothed by a washcloth dipped in essential oils or other nice-smelling substances.

Interoception

Managing emotions, regulating heart rate, or breathing can become difficult for those who are affected by too much or too little stimulation to their interoception system. Going for a run, or practicing breathing techniques can be useful.

When do children engage in sensory experiences as part of a sensory diet?

  • With a therapist. For example, an Occupational Therapist will utilize sensory diets in their practice
  • At home. Parents and caregivers can follow a sensory diet with their child
  • At school. Teachers may implement sensory diets for their students as part of specific strategies outlined in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Where are the “meals” integrated?

Sensory diet activities are sprinkled throughout the day. They are usually scheduled in advance as part of a plan to include sensory strategies, by caregivers.

Where the activities take place depends on which activity is being used. Sometimes a child will have access to something in their immediate vicinity, like sitting with a weighted blanket to recover when they get home from a busy day at school. Other times it could be a break to go outside and do something fun.

Consistency of time, place, and method is so important. Each child will have their own sensory needs, so how they are met will be just as unique.

How do you know which “meals” to provide?

Seeking the help of a professional who can provide medical advice is the best idea. Therapies, such as Occupational Therapy, can produce some really great tips on helping your child manage daily tasks. When appropriate, an Occupational Therapist will make a sensory diet plan with their clients.

Knowing which sensory information your child needs, at the moment, can reveal which sensory activity will be most appropriate. Ultimately, you know your child best.

Your input is vital and often provides the best clues. Combining your information with that of your child’s Occupational Therapist, as well as your child’s contributions, will give a great “recipe” to create a sensory diet “menu” optimized for your family.

Implementation techniques

Studies show sensory diets can significantly improve a child’s ability to think clearly, manage their own behaviors and emotions, and give them the tools they need to effectively navigate their day’s challenges in a more serene manner. Implementing a sensory diet can be a little overwhelming.

Even with the help of professionals like Occupational Therapists, trial and error reign supreme. Something may work for a while then stop, then it’s time to change it up again.

There are techniques that can be used to make the process run more smoothly and prevent frustration. Here are a few:

  1. Have a plan: observe (when does your child generally exhibit symptoms of sensory input needs? Is there a pattern? Design a sensory “meal” for this time, or during the period of time proceeding it) 
  2. Document: record your observations and your child’s progress. As your child grows, their interests and needs grow with them. Some “sensory meals” will change over time as they being obsolete or just need more or different “ingredients”
  3. Designate a specific time, place or activity for each sensory “meal”. This repetition can aid your child in their ability to know for themselves which sensory solution they need and seek it out on their own.
  4. Manage the intensity and frequency of each “meal”

How do you handle transitions for children who find it challenging?

Many autistic and non-autistic children resist transitions. Convincing them to change activities can be triggering. Here are some ideas for making transitions, to sensory activities and back, easier:

  1. Schedules
  2. Countdowns
  3. Rewards with stickers, extra playtime etc
  4. Enlist your child’s help with the planning of the day

Schedules can be problematic as sometimes we see our children’s needs shifting. Be sensitive to your child’s needs.

At times, flexibility in the schedule is necessary for a day. Trying to stay ahead of the game can be one of the trickiest aspects, but enlisting your child’s help when planning a day can go a long way.

This is especially true on special days that are already off routine. For example, a day at the zoo, knowing how your child may handle the off schedule, new sensory heavy content, and extra movement can help clue us in to when a sensory break could be helpful.

A snack time (picked out in advance by the child), and a point of reference for eating said snack that isn’t time based, but event based (after we see the “Australia” wing of the zoo…”) can be useful.

I suggest avoiding specific descriptions such as “After we see the giraffes…” because the giraffes may be unavailable that day. The more general you can be, the better.

The point is, to plan out the sensory diet “meals” as much in advance as you can and follow your child’s clues as well. Sometimes it can feel like walking a tightrope trying to keep it all in balance, but giving your child the ability to self-regulate will help prevent struggles, and empower them to handle possible disappointments or changes much more efficiently.

Example of a sensory diet schedule

Graphic credit: Bethany Goddard

Summary

Finding a good Occupational Therapy program is an important step when helping a child with sensory needs. Whether you have an “under-sensitive” child or an “over-sensitive” child, a sensory diet can be a great resource!

References

Blanche, E. I., Reinoso, G., Chang, M. C., & Bodison, S. (2012). Proprioceptive processing difficulties among children with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. The American journal of occupational therapy: official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 66(5), 621–624. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2012.004234

Pingale, V., Fletcher, T., & Candler, C. (2019) The Effects of Sensory Diets on Children’s Classroom Behaviors, Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, 12:2, 225-238, DOI: 10.1080/19411243.2019.1592054



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