If you have a child with sensory processing issues or are diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, you may have come across the term “sensory diet”. Most of the time when we hear the word “diet”, we think about food. But let me assure you that the sensory diet is definitely not the diet that you are thinking about!
So what is a sensory diet?
A sensory diet is a tailored plan of physical exercises to meet the sensory needs of your child. A sensory diet is for children who have sensory processing challenges. Children who have sensory difficulty with sensory challenges can find it hard to focus and do daily activities and that is why an Occupational Therapist might give them a sensory diet to help them throughout the day.
How Does Sensory Processing Impact My Child?
Just like food, sensory inputs play a crucial role in your child’s overall development. Our sensory processing system allows us to make sense of the environment around us. It also allows us to make sense of the information that is within our bodies.
Every child is unique with their individual sensory needs. For us to function, we need a well integrated or ‘balanced‘ sensory processing.
Children who have sensory processing dysfunction might need more or less sensory information. Thus, if a child is over-aroused nervous system might need calming inputs. On the other hand, an undersensitive child with an under-aroused, nervous system might need more alerting inputs. If your child’s sensory system is constantly trying to meet your child’s sensory needs, it can be hard for your child to focus on what they need to do.
What is a Sensory Diet?
A sensory diet is a specialised treatment plan created by the OT for children to deal with their sensory issues. Sensory diets are individualised for each child because no two children are the same. Sensory diets include physical activities that are designed to help children meet their sensory needs.
The treatment aims to get kids’ sensory system regulated so they can focus on the sensory diet activities they need to do.
Sensory diet activities that provide sensory input to children with sensory dysfunction is known as sensory diet. As mentioned earlier, every child has unique sensory needs, so their diets are tailored according to their needs by their occupational therapists.
The right sensory input helps children to develop attention, learn new skills and socialise with other children of their age group. A tailored sensory diet helps a child develop self-awareness.
We have 8 senses, so depending on your child’s needs, your Occupational Therapist might offer a sensory diet to address their needs for all 8 senses. These include what they see, hear, touch, taste, smell, body awareness, balance and internal body awareness.
Usually, an occupational therapist will create a sensory diet that is used during therapy sessions. These physical activities are designed according to an individual’s sensory needs and can be practised at home, school, preschool, child care programs and so on.
These activities manage a child’s sensory-motor needs, reduce the impact of sensory dysfunction, improve their attention level and aid their learning and skill developments. A sensory diet can be given to a child with sensory processing challenges so they can focus on the activities they need to.
Importance of Sensory Diet
Just like the right amount of nutrients or balanced food, the human body also needs the right amount of sensory information to work well. Too much and a child will experience sensory overload, too little and they will be understimulated.
To create a sensory diet is to give children with sensory processing dysfunction an aim to regain balance in the sensory system. This ensures that the child is receiving the right amount of sensory signals to lead a healthy and normal life.
An occupational therapist designs a sensory diet according to a child’s sensory needs may keep on modifying it over time, according to the environmental demands shifts. The gradual aim is for the child to be able to recognise their own levels and use tools that they have been taught to manage their sensory system.
These diets help your child to feel calm and organised, which is the perfect state for learning new skills, developing attention levels and behaving optimally. With regular practice, a child learns to manage their senses and becomes more mature gradually. Sensory diet makes your child independent and enables them to manage tasks themselves.
To be successful, it is important to have the following sensory strategies when you create a sensory diet
- Understanding of child’s current sensory abilities and challenges
- Understanding of how their sensory processing is impacting their body and the environment
- Proper planning and sequencing of sensory activities
- Doing activities with attention and concentration
- Considering the ability of the child to follow commands and instructions
Sensory Systems and Inputs
Sensory input is a term that refers to the experiences which spark different sensory systems in the human body. As every individual has unique sensory needs, some need more input than others. There are several systems in the human body that include:
There are a few children who require more input for jumping, crashing and other rough plays. Proprioception is an important movement sense and is responsible for body awareness and coordination. The sensory inputs for the proprioceptive system include:
- Resistance training
- Deep pressure
This is the system that is responsible for body balance and movement sense. This system allows us to understand our body’s orientation in space. Some children move constantly and can’t sit still. Some children are lethargic and sluggish as well. In such cases, vestibular inputs can help the child to meet their needs.
The tactile sense is responsible for the sense of touch. Kids who often seek support or fidget with objects might need tactile input. Other kids also do well with deep pressure touches. To treat these children make use of tactile input tools and activities such as
- Tactile sensory bins
- Fidget tools
- Deep pressure
Auditory input refers to the sensory experiences with sound. There are children who make more noise than others. Such children have the tendency to constantly hum and yell. These children require more auditory input for better development. Auditory experiences for such children might include:
- Playing instruments
- Usage of headphones for listening to music
- Playing with toys that make sound
Kids who look more closely at objects than usual require more visual input. Such children seek out objects that are either moving or spinning. They find it difficult to focus on visually presented information. Visual inputs or activities that might help them out are:
- Lighting up toys
- Toys with moving parts
- Flashlight play
Olfactory and Oral Sensory Systems
Olfactory and oral systems are responsible for how an individual processes smell and taste. There are children who keep on licking or smelling objects like toys, crayons, walls and so on. These children require olfactory and oral sensory inputs. Let these children explore smells and tastes through activities like:
- Chewing gum
- Essential oils
- Chewy toys
- Crunchy snacks
- Scented markers
Just like kids who need more sensory inputs, there are a few who are hypersensitive to certain sensory activities or experiences. These children might need less input than usual. Occupational therapists design individual sensory diets for such children for negative reactions to those experiences.