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A sensory diet is a tool that Occupational Therapists can use to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other special needs. A sensory diet consists of various activities and objects that provide different sensations to the child.
A sensory diet can help a child focus better, keep calm, and improve their overall behaviour. There are many different ways to create a sensory diet so that it can be tailored specifically to each child's needs. Read on to find out why sensory diets are important and how they are tailored for each child.
When should I use a sensory diet for my child?
Sensory diets are a great way to help children who have difficulties processing sensory information. An occupational therapist would usually design a sensory diet, and they are tailored to the needs of each individual child.
Some difficulties that children may have that could indicate a need for a sensory diet include:
- Difficulties with attention and focus
- Problems with language and controlling tone of voice
- Being overly active resulting in an inability to complete tasks
- Struggling to control their impulses
- Being unsettled in busy environments
- Not being able to notice and respond to personal space
- Being too forceful in their manner and during play
- Being regularly tired or daydreaming
- Having difficulties with sleeping
What causes difficulties in processing sensory information?
Difficulties in processing sensory information commonly occurs with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), amongst other conditions. Sensory processing involves signals being sent from the body to the brain. When there are difficulties in processing sensory information, this is due to a disruption of this system.
Occupational Therapist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, has described this process as a "traffic jam" of signals in the body. The name initially used for this condition, coined by Ayres, is Sensory Integration Disorder (SID).
The condition is now more commonly known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and the subtype, Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD). With SMD, children will be either overstimulated or under-stimulated. As the disorder is characterised by atypical behaviour to various sensory stimulation, it was deemed appropriate to treat with sensory integration.
What is Sensory Integration?
For many people, sensory integration (SI) is a relatively unknown term. Sensory integration is the process of organising and interpreting information from the environment. This involves assessing the stimuli, determining what needs to be done with that information, and carrying out the appropriate response.
Sensory integration can be a huge challenge for those living with autism or other developmental disabilities. Occupational therapy for sensory integration would involve repeated exposure to sensory stimuli to help train the brain to recognise the signals and respond appropriately. Sensory integration often makes up part of a more extensive treatment—the sensory diet.
What is Sensory Integration Disorder?
Some children have problems with sensory processing, which can make everyday experiences feel difficult or overwhelming for them. This is called Sensory Integration Disorder (SID) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
Sensory processing refers to how your brain interprets signals from your senses. These messages tell you about the environment around you, including sight, sound, smell and touch sensations. These senses make up what we call our "sensorium" – a term that refers to all of our senses working together to help us understand and respond to the world around us.
What are the signs and symptoms of Sensory Integration Disorder?
The main characteristics of children with SID include:
- Difficulty coping with bright lights, loud noises, strong smells or busy environments
- Picky eating or gagging on certain foods
- Intolerance to tags in clothing or seams in socks
- Drooling or difficulty swallowing due to sensitivity to food textures
- Sensitivity to touch, causing children to pull away from hugs or avoid cuddles
- Trouble sitting still for activities such as eating, dressing and bathing
- Low muscle tone (hypotonia) which causes clumsiness
How is Sensory Integration Disorder diagnosed?
A healthcare professional makes the diagnosis of sensory integration disorder who can talk through concerns with you about your child's development. In that case, they will usually carry out a complete physical examination to check their general health, as well as take into account your child's developmental milestones.
Children with SID may appear to have delayed development of specific skills. This is because they are processing information about the world around them differently from other children, making tasks difficult and frustrating.
Their difficulties coping in different environments can also lead to frustration and meltdowns. These behaviours are often misinterpreted as behavioural problems when they are actually caused by the sensory overload of the child's nervous system.
If you think your child may have any of these symptoms, it would be best to speak with your GP or health visitor.
What is a sensory diet for occupational therapy?
A sensory diet is a personalised treatment plan for an individual with Sensory Integration Disorder (SID) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). The purpose of the sensory diet is to identify areas where there are problems with sensory processing.
The plan may include any number of interventions, activities, or sensory circuits, depending on each child's specific needs. But it often consists of a mixture of at-home play-based activities, outdoor experiences and mindful exercises.
What does a typical sensory diet look like?
A sensory diet typically includes a mixture of activities that an occupational therapist—or parent—has specially chosen to benefit children with SPD. These may consist of sensory play at home, being outside in the garden or park or even listening to music.
Each child's needs will be different, but there are standard building blocks to creating a sensory diet. As stated by Occupational Therapists Kid Sense; these include:
- Sensory processing
- Planning and sequencing
- Attention and concentration
- Receptive language
- Executive functioning
Check out this great video from Harkla for Sensory Diets!
Where can I get a sensory diet for my child?
For professional support, your GP may be able to refer your child to an occupational therapist in your area who has experience in this field. You can also find a list of occupational therapists on the Royal College of Occupational Therapists website.
There are also many resources available online where you can download free guides and checklists designed to help parents create their own sensory diet at home. The key to creating a sensory diet is to begin by observing your child's behaviour to understand their sensory needs better.
The process of developing the most suitable sensory diet can be one of trial and error, so give yourself and your child time to try out different activities and decide on what works best.
Recording sensory diet activities
Once you introduce a sensory activity, you or your child can record how it went. It's essential to understand this to develop the best exercises for the way your child is feeling. For example, it would be good to keep track of:
- What type of activity is it – movement, breathing or heavy work?
- When is it best for your child to use this activity? What will they feel that may be the sign that the activity could help them feel better?
- How did they feel after the activity?
Occupational therapists recommend 90 minutes of sensory diet activities throughout the week to help children. However, there are other things to consider for the best outcome for your child. These will depend entirely on their unique sensory needs.
Other things to consider are the timing of activities, intensity and duration, incorporating activities into daily routine, and always recording behaviour changes.
What are the benefits of a sensory diet for children?
People with SPD may experience hypersensitivity to certain stimuli that others don't find particularly overwhelming. This can be very distressing for them and lead to severe anxiety in some cases—especially when they're in unfamiliar situations or environments, such as going to school or visiting new places.
A sensory diet may benefit children with SPD by reducing anxiety and behavioural difficulties, allowing them to cope better with everyday experiences.
How a sensory diet helps children at home and school
Sensory diets are an essential part of treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which can lead to increased anxiety and behavioural problems in children if not managed appropriately. These issues can impact the child's learning, social interaction, and participation in play activities at home and school.
A sensory diet is a plan designed by a therapist to include elements specifically chosen for their ability to provide input in different ways for the body's senses. This input aims to normalise how your child's brain and body process information, which can help to improve a child's ability to cope with various situations.
Indoor sensory diet activities
Some of the activities that may be included in a sensory diet plan at home for your child might include things like:
- Sitting on the floor with your child and playing with playdough or clay
- Using scented creams to massage your child's limbs
- Colouring activities that involve texture, such as using felt tip pens or sponge painting
- Listening to music together, using white noise, or noise-cancelling headphones
- Playing in a big box filled with popcorn kernels or dried beans
- Deep pressure squishing or sandwiching
- Tracing mazes or dot to dots for fine motor skills
Outdoor sensory diet activities
The activities you try will depend on how much energy your child has to spare. Some activities you might like to give a go include:
- Going for walks in a park, splashing in puddles or kicking through leaves
- Spending time in a sensory garden or walking along a sensory path
- Doing some gardening together, running their hands through the soil
- Riding a scooter or a bike
- Playing on a trampoline
- Wheelbarrow walking activity
- Playing on swings, with back and forth motion
As with any health plan or intervention, working with a professional is essential. It is best to consult with an occupational therapist for a sensory diet to decide which activities are suitable for your child.
Once you know which activities are best, you can work with your child to help them with their sensory needs at home. As long as you stick within the recommended boundaries of safety and stimulation, there's no reason why you can't try out a range of different activities.
We'd love to hear about your experience with sensory diet plans. If you've found a fantastic resource for your child, please share it with everyone by commenting below.
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- Sensory Integration, Sensory Processing, and Sensory Modulation Disorders: Putative Functional Neuroanatomic Underpinnings (2011). By Leonard F. Koziol, Deborah Ely Budding & Dana Chidekel.
- LANC UK. Sensory Integration Disorder.
- Kid Sense Child Development. Sensory Diets.