When hearing the word “diet”, as a society, we immediately associate the word with eating healthier or limiting our intake of certain foods and beverages. For parents, when the term “sensory diet” is first introduced, a variety of questions of confusion and curiosity may come into play. Have no fear- this type of diet has no effect on what your child can/cannot eat but what in fact your child can do throughout his/her day to help and assist with attention, arousal, and adaptive responses. A sensory diet is a carefully planned program of specific sensory-based activities that are scheduled according to each child’s needs, consisting of specific components and “nutrition” for the central nervous system (CNS).
Children with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may have a difficult time adjusting to everyday stimuli that may not appear as a problem to a person without sensory-processing difficulties. As a child who may have a difficult time adjusting everyday stimuli it may illustrate an under-responsive behavior (low arousal) or an over-responsive behavior (high arousal) (Wilbarger & Wilbarger, 2002). With these children who have a hard time adjusting or modulating his/her behaviors, this may effect a child’s participation in everyday childhood “occupations”, or behaviors and roles that are important to the child’s growth and development. Examples of “occupations” that are important throughout childhood are play, self-care, school, and sleep.
With all of this information the next step is asking; how is a sensory diet created? As an occupational therapist it is our role to help assist in creating the sensory diet, with the help of parents/guardians, teachers etc. that are with the child on a daily basis. The key to creating a successful sensory diet is by gathering information on the child's day, routines and schedules in addition to observations of the child and how they respond to sensory experiences. In terms of writing down your child’s daily activities, it is important to note/comment on your child’s performance or activity level during these times or activities. The more detailed you are the more helpful your information will be in determining sensory diet activities and/or tasks that will benefit your child in his/her environment.
For parents and children with a Sensory Processing Disorder, incorporating a sensory diet into his/her daily routine may be helpful in allowing the child to perform as optimally as possible in his/her environment. With this being said, there may be trial and error process, and this is not something to get discouraged about. With the help of your child’s occupational therapist, teachers, and supporters, your child will find a variation of different activities/tasks to helpful maintain an optimal arousal level, in order to find success in each activity throughout the day. Every child with Sensory Processing Disorder is unique and this will reflect each sensory diet differently. Some activities may work for your child and some may not; it is important to stay positive and work through this process- it will be worth the wait!
- Marisa DiRienzo, OTS