Sensory Diet…what’s that?

March 23, 2018



When I speak to parents about what their child and I have worked on during OT at Aspire Pediatric Therapy, I tell them of all the heavy work we accomplished before trying to focus on the more tedious tasks of our session.  The tedious tasks or activities demand more of an increased, sustained focus to attend to completion. Heavy work, which increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin in our brains, helps our bodies organize ourselves to our optimal levels of focusing…that “just right” state of arousal.

Heavy work for children can be accomplished through obstacle courses, jumping, climbing, rolling, crawling, and crashing into crash pads or piles of pillows. Heavy work can be lifting, pulling, pushing, stomping, and squeezing. All of these actions give our bodies sensory-motor input to our muscles and joints creating a calming, organizing effect, decreasing anxiety and stress. 

Sensory diets are activities or tasks that have sensory-motor components built into a structured schedule throughout a child’s day to keep them regulated.  It is a whole brain approach to fade out or shape behaviors as well. A sensory diet is a way to proactively create within a child’s environment, intervention strategies that can replace negative behaviors, sensory seeking and sensory avoidance. Rather than reacting in the heat of the moment to a child’s meltdown because something is going awry with their sensory processing, implement a sensory diet into their routines! This could make more days go a lot smoother for everyone!

A sensory diet should be discussed with an occupational therapist as he or she would need to take information from you about your child’s day…from wake up to bed time.  They would also assess the areas of need and be able to identify the break down in sensory processing.  The purpose of a sensory diet is to meet sensory needs on an ongoing basis throughout the day and reduce the incidences of maladaptive behaviors.

The first half hour of a 60-minute session I spend with the kids at Aspire Pediatric Therapy is spent doing obstacle courses that include movement and heavy work.  If a child is hyperactive I will think of ways to calm them and build that into a mini obstacle course. Create activities that include climbing, or slow, linear swinging, tossing a weighted ball at bowling pins, and crawling through a ten-foot tunnel. If a child is moving slow I may need to build into the obstacle course activities that are more intense in movement such as rotary swinging, bouncing on a ball, riding the zip line, or rolling. 

By the time we repeat the obstacle course a few times, I have a child who is ready to sit and attend a board game, draw and complete handwriting samples, or focus long enough to practice the 8 steps of tying their shoelaces! They are “just right.”  

Having a schedule to follow keep children motivated and decreases frustration as schedules have a start and an end and allow for control of choices. A parent or therapist control the choices the child chooses from as they would be in control of the sensory input, and directing the intensity needed. Having a schedule is the first step in creating a sensory diet. Knowing what to put on that schedule takes planning, but if implemented consistently and across your child’s environments, those challenging days get easier to face down…from wake up to bedtime.

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