As we get deep into the winter months, we all see our kids beginning to crave the great outdoors (including and especially my three-year-old son). They begin to get restless, anxious, fidgety, and in an overall bad mood. For our sensory kids, this cabin fever can go to extremes. That is why a good sensory diet is a must for children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
What is a Sensory Diet?
A sensory diet is a pre-planned, intentional schedule of sensory input provided at key times of the day. A well-planned sensory diet can be the key to success for children who struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder. Initially coined by Patricia Wilbarger, a sensory diet is just what the name implies: a diet of sensory input ranging from vestibular (movement), proprioceptive (muscle and joint information), tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell) input. Children use this input to maintain a focused and organized state of alertness. A well-trained pediatric occupational therapist can guide parents to the activities best suited for their individual child.
What are the Key Points?
Our nervous system needs to be at the “just right” state of alertness/attention to learn and engage appropriately within the environment. Some ways to get to just right include the following:
For means of simplification we will discuss two sensory “profiles: (1) under responsive and (2) over responsive.
Under responsive to sensory input: The child seeks excessive input, constantly moving or fidgeting, placing their hands on everything, typically appearing more “pulled together” after an intense sensory experience.
Over responsive to sensory input: The child avoids novel sensory input, is fearful or cautious, easily becomes overstimulated, may run away or seek a retreat from sensory input (as in covering ears with loud noises, avoiding playground equipment, or avoiding a variety of food textures).
Be aware that a child can be under-responsive in one sensory area and over-responsive in another sensory area.
- Alerting Activities: For the under-responsive child to get to “just right,” some ideas include eating crunchy snacks, bouncing on a therapy ball, jumping on a trampoline, rolling, or spinning.
- Calming Activities: For the over-responsive child to get to “just right,” some ideas include slow rhythmical rocking, slow swinging, hugging, cuddling, swaddling, using deep pressure input, or sucking hard candy.
- Organizing Activities: These activities help regulate the child’s responses and can be used for under or over-responsiveness: chewy foods or heavy work/deep pressure input (pushing, pulling, hanging, carrying heavy objects, playing tug of war).
When does the child need sensory input?
Typically, children with Sensory Processing Disorder need sensory input at the start of the day, before circle time or sit-down tasks, after lunch, and before homework or any other task that may require focused attention.
What type of sensory input does the child need?
Observe your child. What do you see them doing? Are they seeking any specific type of input? Please consult with a pediatric occupational therapist for specific activities.
How much input does the child need?
Know when to stop. When the child appears to be regulated and able to interact appropriately and attend to directions, he or she has likely had enough input. Typically, a short movement or heavy work break is enough to get the nervous system regulated.
For more information, or to get your child a personalized sensory diet, consult an experienced pediatric occupational therapist. If we can help, please contact us.
- For a great sensory diet resource for teachers, see http://oranda.org/collections/educational-resources/products/focus123cards-pdf.
- For a great sensory diet resource for parents, see http://www.sensationalbrain.com/.
Whatever method you use, keep your children moving and playing!
From our family to yours,
Melissa and Rob Hough
Melissa Hough, OTR/L, C/NDT is an occupational therapist with over 20 years of pediatric experience and certifications in Sensory Integration (SI) and Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT). Melissa has a professional and personal perspective when working with children because she is also the adoptive parent of a child with special needs.
Since 2002, Children’s Therapy Center, PSC has served thousands of families in Louisville, Kentucky, by providing high-quality therapy services and parent education.