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The Importance of a Sensory Diet for your Child

Did you know a sensory diet isn’t all about food? It’s a specialized activity plan to help your child stay focused. Our expert explains.

A girl with SPD plays with a sensory table.
A girl with SPD plays with a sensory table.

Have you ever twirled a paperclip in your hand during a meeting, or soaked in a hot bath to decompress? If so, you’re using sensory exercises to keep your body regulated.

A sensory diet does the same thing. Is this a specific food diet? No, a sensory diet is a program created for your child by an Occupational Therapist (OT); it is a personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input he or she needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day.

Why does your child need a sensory diet? We all take in information from our environment, but some of us process in an uneven way. Your child may need to take in lots of information in order to experience stimulation through each of his senses, or very little information may overwhelm him. For example, your child may experience a little bit of sound as a lot, and become overstimulated and unable to listen to the teacher. Your child may not be able to filter sounds, thus making every sound in the environment as loud as the other (e.g., the computer humming, the child’s sneakers squeaking in the hallway, the child blowing his nose in the back of the classroom).

Throughout the day, your child is taking in information with all senses, and she cannot necessarily make sense of it all. By the end of the day, your child has tried to process so much information from multiple senses that she is totally overwhelmed and exhausted. I liken this experience to being in the office and participating in a phone conference while your cell phone is ringing, your co-worker is at your door with a question, and you are getting instant messages nonstop. That’s a lot to process and it can leave your head spinning because you aren’t able to attend to any one thing. That is how your child feels in the classroom all of the time.

Traditionally, your child’s teacher may think that a movement break is the answer. That will likely help, but it may not be enough because you child’s sensory profile may include the need for deep pressure or heavy work. This is a need or craving for deep proprioception and joint compression. This means that these accommodations are needed for your child to be able to remain focused and functioning in the classroom.

[Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

If you feel overstimulation is a problem, here are a few accommodations to add to your child’s 504 Accommodation Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP):

  • Consultation between teacher and OT to evaluate and re-evaluate sensory diet exercises
  • Use a picture schedule for the day’s events
  • Maintain a consistent and predictable routine for the child
  • Seat the child away from doors and windows to decrease distraction
  • Decrease amount of visual stimulation in the classroom; Visual distractions are very hard for them to “filter” and get used too, this only takes away from them looking at you the teacher!
  • Allow for standing times at a desk, or sitting on a therapy ball when trying to listen or recite or answer questions.
  • Vary learning times so that intense short “sit-down times” are no longer than 15 minutes at first, then you can work up to 30 minutes.

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

  • Decrease the number of paper-and-pencil based tasks. Incorporate movement and multi-sensory instruction.
  • Use a timer to measure how long the child must work on a task. Once done, the child can leave seat or work area and engage in a sensory diet exercise.
  • Have a calming area in the classroom or a sensory area at home. This is an area that the child can go to when they are feeling overly stressed, and can swing calmly, rock in a glider or chair, sit on a bean bag and look at books, lay a bean bag on his body, or go into a small tent – or under a table draped with a dark cloth – to calm down.
  • Use white noise to help filter background noises – this can include a fan or white noise maker (also known as a sleep machine; available on Amazon).
  • Use a reward system where rewards are sensory diet exercises
  • Use a Move and Sit seat insert, weighted vest, sit on big ball instead of chair, or other adaptions to help get the wiggles out.
  • Use headphones or ear muffs that cover the entire ear to help the child filter out extraneous background noises
  • Use an FM System in the classroom

[6 At-Home Occupational Therapy Techniques That Really Make a Difference]