Kids with sensory processing issues respond to the environment in several ways. Although each child is unique, there are some common ways of reacting to sensory input:
  • Over-reactions
    to outside stimulation cause a child to be distractible, or hyperactive. This child may seem to be in constant motion as he/she moves away from certain input and is seeking.
  • Over-reactions
    to sensory input cause a child to go into a shut-down state to reduce unexpected sensory input. Sometimes, this child will have rigid routines/rituals regarding sensory stimulation and may appear very controlling.
  • Under-reactions
    to sensory input cause a child to seek out more sensory stimulation. This is a child who is “on the go” and seems to need a large amount of movement or input to get regulated.
  • Under-reactions
    to sensory input cause a child to appear sluggish, passive, and under-aroused. This is a child that needs external support through multi-sensory input to get to an optimal learning state.

Some kids show a combination of these reactions depending on the environment.

If your child has sensory processing issues, you may want to talk to your Occupational Therapist or Physical Therapist to help you develop a sensory diet of activities to support your child’s participation at home, school, and with peers.

The term “sensory diet” has become more popular in recent years, but the understanding of what it is, let alone how to develop one, may not be clear to parents and educators.  Contrary to its name, it is not a diet of food you eat, rather, it is like the concept of a diet wherein you need adequate sensory input throughout the day in order to remain in a “just right” kind of state. Being in the “just right” state allows one to pay attention in school, sit at the table to eat a meal, or socialize with kids at school.

Sensory Diets at Developmental Pathways for Kids are part of our sensory integration therapy programs.

What does getting into the “just right state” mean?

For over-stimulated kids, their sensory diet of activities can help them calm down from an over-loaded state. Or kids who feel or appear sluggish can get into a “just right state” by doing activities that help them feel more alert.

Not all kids are able to recognize when they are in the “just right” state. Being consistent with implementing a sensory diet of activities every day is key to helping your child begin to become more self-aware and also make progress.

An Occupational Therapist (OT) or Physical Therapist (PT) can design a routine of activities to fit your child’s exact needs and schedule. The therapist will do them with your child during therapy sessions and also teach parents activities to do at home.

What might a Sensory Diet Look Like?

A sensory diet is a set of activities that are specific to your child’s needs.

Now, how do you build a basic sensory diet?

  • Understand which activities might be alerting or calming for the person who the sensory diet is developed for. This is where the expert eye of a therapist may be required. Different input has different effects, meaning for some, a particular form of input can be alerting, or it can be calming.  However, you can still observe your child’s behavior and implement sensory strategies based on what you’re trying to achieve, such as helping them to feel calm. (A list of suggested activities is at the end of this blog post).
  • Pick 4-5 sensory activities to implement on a regular basis, or at different parts of the day when needing to be in the “just right” state. I recommend also choosing those that have been effective in the past, such as chewing, taking a brief walk, listening to calming music, jumping on a trampoline, or helping to carry in groceries.
  • Use a system of implementation that works for you, meaning, will you use visuals (pictures of the items or activities), make a list, or just keep mental notes?
  • Recognize the signs of needing a sensory strategy and implement a strategy. This will help develop the right formula of when to implement your strategies, and what type of input is needed. For instance, if your child becomes overly excited in a large gathering, you can engage them in a calming activity such as chewing ( chew item, chewing gum, or food), giving them deep pressure to their shoulders or arms (gently pressing down) or having them hug themselves. Another example of implementing a sensory strategy at a time when needing to be more alert for an activity (such as sitting in class for 20 minutes or preparing to do homework) would be engaging in vestibular or proprioceptive activities such as jumping in place for 30 seconds, taking a quick walk, or squeezing your hands together and holding for several seconds.

Following is a list of suggested sensory activities that can be incorporated into your everyday routine. As aforementioned, please consult with an OT or PT with advanced training in sensory processing in order to better determine their unique sensory needs.

  • Proprioceptive:
    • Carry something heavy (groceries, a backpack with a few books inside, a watering can, stack chairs at the end of the day, carry the laundry basket)
    • Push or pull something (a stroller, moving chairs, a lunch cart, loaded wagon, a laundry basket)
    • Sweep or mop the floor
    • Wipe down the table or wipe the windows
    • Visit a playground and encourage jumping, climbing, and hanging from the bars
    • Crawl (through a tunnel, pretending to be an animal)
    • Swim
    • Jump—in place, from a sturdy and elevated surface, or by doing jumping jacks
    • Suck through a straw (water, milkshake, smoothie, etc.)
    • Chewing (chew necklaces, gum, crunchy/chewy foods such as celery, carrots, apples, beef jerky, licorice, gummy bears, etc.)
  • Vestibular:
    • Swing (back and forth motion is calming, while rotary or circular movement, think tire swing, is alerting)
    • Ride a bike
    • Gymnastics or tumbling activities (somersaults, cartwheels)
    • Roll down a hill
    • Jumping jacks
    • Hang upside down
    • Jump on a trampoline
    • Bear walks (walking with arms on the ground, head down) or wheelbarrow walks
    • Rolling on a large ball
    • Play freeze dance
  • Tactile:
    • Gentle, firm massage applied to the shoulders, head, arms, hands, and/or feet
    • Burrito roll up–wrap your child in a blanket (head exposed, not too tight)
    • After bathing, apply lotion with a gentle but firm massage
    • Go barefoot in the grass or sand
    • Play with tactile materials that are messy, wet, or sticky (Play-doh, slime, water beads, wet sand, crafts using glue or paint)
  • Auditory:
    • Wear headphones, earbuds, or earplugs if noises are bothersome or loud noises are expected
    • Listen to quiet music to promote calm, or listen to upbeat or loud music to increase alertness
    • Turn off the noises–turn off the TV, music, close the windows, find a quiet place in your space or home
    • Utilize white noise machines or apps to drown out bothersome or extraneous noise
  • Visual:
    • Wear sunglasses when out in bright sunlight
    • Wear a hat
    • Decrease clutter or environmental business by putting things away or using storage containers
    • Monitor screen time with visually busy images and graphics
    • Use a privacy board/corral or turn to face a plain wall when needing to decrease or limit visual distractions.

Key Takeaways
A sensory diet helps kids get in a “just right” state so they can pay attention and learn.

Activities in a sensory diet can help kids who are overreactive feel calmer, and under reactive kids feel more alert.

You can talk with the school about working sensory diet activities into your child’s school day and IEP.

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