Natural Treatments

Using a “Sensory Diet” to Get My Daughter (and Myself!) Through the Day

My daughter, who has ADHD and SPD, struggles to focus, do her homework, and get to school (or anywhere else) on time. These strategies — picked up from her occupational therapist — help her meet her unique sensory needs.

Illustrations of the five senses involved in a sensory diet for children with ADHD
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Each school morning, I get into the car at 7:35, take a deep breath, and wait. Just when my mind sees the word tardy, scrawled angry and red, Lee bursts out of the house with her rolling backpack in tow, its wheels flying off the ground, clutching her boots and jacket. She heaves her backpack into the trunk and yanks open the car door, punching on the radio and popping in a piece of gum. It is now 7:40, and she will make it to school on time…barely.

I marvel that my daughter gets ready and leaves for school in 20 minutes flat. She is a high school junior, and has learned to cut corners: skipping breakfast and taking baths at night, so she can sprint the fast lap into school. It’s her responsibility, so I step back and watch, a spectator at the track.

SPD and School

Getting Lee to school has been one of my hardest jobs as a mother. Preschool wasn’t so bad, with Tinker Bell and Indiana Jones costumes, art easels with butcher paper, and rainbows of paint. But then came kindergarten, with its big interlocking mat of alphabet squares and the teacher’s command to sit in one square and be still while she talked. Lee decided she’d rather stay home.

[Is Your Child Out of Sync?]

“I don’t want to go to school!” Lee screamed, as I tried to get her out of bed. “Wake up, Honey” turned into “Now, Honey,” which turned into “Blanket ride!” Her protests turned into laughter as I resorted to my inner cavewoman, tugging her behind me on her blanket. I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. to leave the house at 8:00 a.m.

But getting to school was nothing compared to being in school. In first grade, the teacher asked how much is 2+2, and Lee’s big brown eyes drifted off the page and outside the window to the trees with the branches that looked like gnarled monster arms. She’d grab a pencil to draw them, and miss the math lesson, falling behind the rest of the class.

After school, Lee was fine as long as she was chasing lizards and climbing trees, but the minute I said the word “homework,” she’d head to the couch and bang her head against the cushions…again and again.

My husband and I sought help from a child psychologist, who gave us a diagnosis of ADHD and recommended a visit to a neurologist for medication counseling. Desperate to help Lee, we decided to go. The neurologist underlined “HD” in ADHD as Lee darted around her office, touching every one of the many figurines on the shelves. Medication was strongly recommended, and she added that Lee might have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which often occurs with ADHD. She explained that a child with SPD has trouble processing sensory information correctly, which creates problems at school. Occupational therapy could help alleviate the problems.

[Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

OT to the Rescue

The occupational therapy classroom looked like a glorified playground, complete with a ball pit, swings with harnesses, and trampolines. As Lee raced into the ball pit and threw herself around, the occupational therapist gave us Lee’s diagnosis. Lee had SPD and was hypo-vestibular, hypo-proprioceptive, and hypo-tactile. Lee craved sensations her body was lacking: a sense of gravity, of feeling her body in space, and an under-responsivity to touch. This made her restless, impulsive, and hyperactive as she sought those sensations.

The occupational therapist wrote out a “sensory diet,” a series of steps to help get Lee to school. By the end of second grade, it was the routine I faithfully followed, the only way I could get my daughter through the school day. Here are some of the steps that worked for Lee and may work for your child:

Waking up: Using a soft or heavy blanket, roll your child up tightly, pretending that she is a burrito. My blanket ride was a good start, but if I’d wrapped her tightly in the blanket before I’d dragged her down the hall, it would have given her deep compression, a calming pressure, along with the fun blanket ride.

Breakfast/Lunch: Add straws for resistive sucking. Lee loved drinking her cereal milk through a straw, which helped her self-soothe and provided sensory feedback to the mouth. Chewy, crunchy lunchtime snacks — carrots, pretzels, and beef jerky — are also stimulating to the mouth.

Going to school: Have your child wear or pull a weighted backpack to school. If possible, get there early to play on the jungle gym or swing. Lee and I used to hold hands, lean back, and spin in a circle five times on the grass outside the classroom. Spinning gave her the vestibular sensations she was lacking, and helped her focus in the classroom.

During class: If possible, tie a resistance band around the bottom of the child’s chair to allow her to kick without disturbing the class, and/or allow her to sit on a tactile cushion with rubbery spikes. Another help are “fidgets,” small objects that give tactile input. Lee’s favorites were squeeze balls that she kept in her pocket.

[How to Treat Sensory Processing Disorder]

After school: Provide wet or dry tactile activities for your child. Lee loved tracing letters in sand, writing words with shaving cream, and doing her homework in a fort she’d built from cardboard boxes. When she had to memorize lines or a poem, she jumped on a trampoline and tossed beanbags while reciting out loud. The rhythm helped to imprint the words in her memory.

This morning, I looked over at her in the car. She was chewing gum — a sensory must! — and feeling the beats in a song with her fingers. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, starting the mental transition into school. I can’t tell you she will ever love going, but she’s able to get through the day, a milestone I never take for granted.



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