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The Sensory Diet: What You Can Do to Help Your Child

Deb Levy
June 21, 2017


A neurological traffic jam. That is how A. Jean Ayres, PhD, an occupational therapist (OT) and neuroscientist describes Sensory Processing Disorders.  A more medically appropriate explanation would be this - the inability to process multiple sensory inputs from the environment in a self-regulatory and functional way.  (For a better understanding of sensory processing disorders, see Sensory Processing Disorder: Signs and How to Cope.)

But for children living with SPD, it is a daily struggle fraught with challenges in every aspect of their lives - from the classroom to the playground, breakfast to bedtime.  Because in order to do the simplest of tasks - be it hanging a coat on a hook or sitting down to eat a sandwich - we rely on a fully functioning nervous system to integrate the input we receive from the world around us and coordinate the appropriate responses within our body to get the task done.

Fortunately there is help for kids - and their parents - who suffer.  And while an occupational therapist is key in diagnosing and developing a plan with appropriate interventions, there is much that parents and caregivers can do at home.  This therapy is called a Sensory Diet.

Don't let the name scare you; sensory diets have nothing to do with eliminating foods.  Rather, the term "diet" simply refers to a menu of activities that feed your child's individual craving for the sensory input they need, whether to calm down or heighten their attention.

We all know about the five senses - touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight. Occupational therapists work with these and more, breaking them into different systems:

  • tactile system (touch)
  • auditory system (hearing)
  • visual system (sight)
  • gustatory and olfactory systems (taste and smell)
  • vestibular system (moving and balance)
  • proprioceptive system (body awareness)

There are hundreds of different activities that utilize these various systems, and an OT will work with your child to best understand what types of sensations they need and when.  The effects of these activities are often immediate, yet they work over time to help restructure a child's nervous system so that he or she can self-regulate. Many of these activities can be done anywhere, and family members or friends can take part in the therapy together.  The best thing about a sensory diet? It's fun.

The following are just a few sensory diet activities found on SensorySmarts.com.  But note that these are not one-size-fits-all, and it is critical that you work with a trained OT to determine the appropriate activities for your own child's particular needs.

Tactile System

  • a warm bath
  • finger paints or whipped cream
  • vibrating pens, balls or toothbrush
  • back scratch
  • pet a dog or cat
  • eat with chopsticks
  • draw letters on your child's back and have him guess which they are
  • Play-doh
  • drink seltzer
  • walk barefoot in the grass
  • the "hot dog" game - wrap your child in a blanket and use deep pressure touches to add ketchup, mustard, relish, etc.

Auditory System

  • listen to favorite music
  • bang on pots and pans
  • sing, whistle or hum
  • listen to sounds of nature outside
  • play "identify that sound"
  • white noise machine

Visual System

  • look at mobiles or lava lamps
  • look at photos or picture books
  • tinted lenses if sensitive to glares
  • avoid fluorescent bulbs
  • play with dot-to-dots, mazes, I Spy
  • card games like "spit" or "Blink", board games like "Perfection"

Gustatory/Olfactory System

  • scented candles or soaps
  • sniff spices/herbs
  • explore tastes - salty, sweet, bitter, sour
  • chew gum
  • suck thick liquids through straw
  • explore textures through granola, dried fruits, crunchy snacks
  • eat frozen, cold or warm foods

Vestibular System

  • swing on the playground or on a hammock, hang upside down
  • swim
  • do cartwheels, dance
  • roll down hills
  • spin around in a chair
  • ride a bike or scooter

Proprioceptive System

  • throw and catch a basketball or kickball
  • rake leaves
  • push a grocery cart or stroller
  • wheelbarrow walk
  • wall push ups
  • put a filled water bottle in child's backpack
  • climb stairs
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