The problem with sensory diets

Sensory diets are a structured list of sensory strategies which an individual can use throughout the day to help to support their arousal, attention and focus.  They are commonly suggested as a support for individuals with sensory processing differences, including those with autism.  This article will consider

  • A history of sensory diets

  • Examples of a sensory diet

  • Potential problems with sensory diets

boy crawling through hoola hoop text sensory diets

The problem with sensory diets

Sensory diets are a structured list of sensory strategies which an individual can use throughout the day to help to support their arousal, attention and focus.  They are commonly suggested as a support for individuals with sensory processing differences, including those with autism.  This article will consider

  • A history of sensory diets

  • Examples of a sensory diet

  • Potential problems with sensory diets

What is a sensory diet?

A sensory diet is a list of sensory activities that child completes at certain points throughout the day to help with their regulation.  The sensory activities might include movement, a calm break, or a visual display. There are some examples below.

A history of sensory diets

The concept of a Sensory Diets was first officially published by Patricia Willbarger in 1995 in an article by the American Occupation Therapy Association.  A the same time occupational therapists Mary Williams and Sherry Shellenberger explored the idea of using sensory strategies to support regulation in their book How Does Your Engine Run?

The authors suggested that our bodies need sensations in the same way they need food.  Sensations can help to both increase and decrease arousal.  At its simplest, arousal is how awake or alert or how tired you are.  It supports attention and focus.   We explore arousal further here in this post.

Sensory inputs can help to support arousal.  For example, if you’re energy is low, going for a run might help to increase your arousal.  Or, if you’re stressed and your arousal is high, a hot drink might help to calm you down.

Sensory diets are way to structure the sensory inputs which help to support the child’s arousal across the day.  Each one will be unique to the individual child.  They should ideally be created after an assessment by an occupational therapist.

What do sensory diets look like?

A traditional sensory diet will include a timetabled list of activities to be used throughout the day.  They will include a mix of sensory strategies which help to support the individual’s arousal.   Traditionally they also included allocated timeslots for activities.

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Mia’s story

Mia is easily overloaded by both noise and touch sensory information.  She finds school activities like PE and assembly quite tricky as they are loud.  She does wear ear defenders, but these only help so much.  A sensory diet could be used throughout the day to help to support her arousal.

Mia’s sensory diet might look like this

Breakfast – Sophia drinks her milkshake through a straw and she always has chewy bread, her mother alternates between bagels and sourdough.

Getting dressed – Sophia’s mum usually does a foot and hand massage when she gets dressed.  If there is time they will also do a big sandwich between her beanbag.

Arrival at school – When Sophia arrives at school she has ten minutes to sit and watch the fish tank or do a puzzle or read a book in a quiet corner.

At 10, 12 and 2pm – Sophia completes her resistance band activities with her teaching assistant.

Arriving at home – Sophia has 10-20 minutes to chill out with her soft toys in the space her parents made under her bunk beds.  This space is dark and quiet.  Or, she does a 10-20 minute yoga video.

Before bed – Sophia’s parents do a massage before she goes to sleep.

James – sensory seeking

James is a classic sensory seeker.  He is constantly on the go.  However, his movement doesn’t always organise him very well.  He loves being upside down and his parents have always said that he is very busy.  His teachers use his sensory diet to help him to be more settled and focused in class.

James’ sensory diet

Before school – James spends ten minutes on his trampoline or using his Wii fit before breakfast.  He also cycles to school in the morning.

9:00 – James takes the register book to the office

9:30 – James completes a sensory circuit between the morning lessons

11:30 – James completes a sensory circuit between the mid-morning lessons

2:00 – James joins in the PE warm-up with the class in the hall

James’ teachers also ensure that he never misses break and lunch time play as these are additional opportunities for him to move.  He is allowed on the play structure every day to climb.

He also cycles home and often his parents stop at the park as well.  They also let him spend time on the trampoline or Wii-Fit before they expect him to sit and do his homework.

He swims twice a week and also goes climbing and to karate once a week.

** Please note these are examples only and should not be used as a sensory diet for a student.

Every child is an individual and will need their own plan.  It is also useful to have flexibility as it’s rare that days ever go 100% according to plan.

How do therapists create sensory diets?

Occupational therapists will typically complete a sensory profile and assessment to determine what will be the best supports for an individual’s sensory diet.  They will work with the child, their family and their teachers to determine what will be the best supports to put in place.  This will vary depending on the individual’s needs and also the environment and equipment that is available.  There is no one size fits all and everyone’s needs are different.

Level 3 of our online training covers sensory strategies and supports you could use with individuals who have sensory differences.  You can also use the different strategies we explore in our sensory supports and equipment posts.  And also have a look at our sensory diet cards and videos.

There are a number of books available which can be used to help to create and implement a sensory diet.  These include

  • A Buffet of Sensory Interventions: Solutions for Middle and High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Susan Culp
  • The Kids’ Guide to Staying Awesome and In Control: Simple Stuff to Help Children Regulate their Emotions and Senses – Lauren Brunker
  • The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder – Carol Stock Kranowitz

Movement

We use movement a lot.  Videos are a great way to help to organise this when you’re indoors.

The problem with sensory diets

Sensory diets are a good way to introduce the idea of supporting arousal.  However, in reality they can be restrictive.  It may be that the individual needs support at 9am, but their sensory diet doesn’t have a slot until 10am.  Or, that they are working really well and attending at 10am so may not need the strategy at that time.

The ultimate aim is to help the individual to regulate sufficiently to be able to participate.  So, prescriptive sensory diets may not be reactive enough or flexible enough to support regulation in the real world.

So, consider a sensory lifestyle!

There is more of a shift toward thinking about a sensory lifestyle.   This means thinking about how to embed sensory regulation strategies through the individuals’ day, week and month.  It means making lifestyle changes which automatically include supports.

So, instead of needing to remember to have a movement break or put in a calm break at a specific time, the classroom or home space is set up to support these as they are required.  Extra walking or down time is just organised into their week every day.  The sensory opportunities are automatically embedded.

And, think about a few quick supports.

It’s also helpful to have a quick support that can be used at unexpected times, as the world is unpredictable and things don’t always go to plan.  So, find one or two things that can help to quickly increase or decrease the individuals’ energy at times when it might be needed.  Have them in your back pocket just in case.

Where to next?

Next you might want to ready about more sensory strategies.  We recommend these articles

To learn even more you might find these resources helpful

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