What is a Sensory Diet?
The "sensory diet" concept is based on the idea that every individual’s nervous system uses activity and sensation in order to regulate alertness or stimulation in our environment. With just the right amount of alertness, we can function in an adaptable, skillful, efficient, “well behaved”, and self-confident way. Much like a nutritional diet, the effects of some activities on our nervous system are like snacks - they might change our mood, “wake” us up, or help us to concentrate.
We become more aware of the ways that we use our own sensory diets to modulate our stimulation levels by attending to patterns of intensity, duration, and time of day that we use specific sensory strategies. Consistent routines such as waking up and mealtimes; specific alteration to the environment, such as a safe, sensory-controlled place for self-directed play; and input into optimal interaction styles put into a program to help increase the effectiveness. Incorporating leisure activities into a sensory diet may provide additional opportunities for movement, heavy work, deep touch pressure, and proprioceptive inputs.
What does optimal stimulation look like?
Our stimulation levels may fluctuate throughout the day, based on the demands in our environment, our mood, or our activity level. In general, low, high, and optimized stimulation states can be characterized as follows:
“Hyper” or “antsy”
Hard to recover from stressful events or changes in routine
Difficult transition to bedtime
Shut down with little interaction or avoidance
Able to focus and explore a task
Able to concentrate
Meaningful interaction with people and environment
Minimal physical activity
Limited facial expressions
Difficult to wake
Slow to respond
Some activities or environmental factors (sensory input) may have a calming or “modulating” effect on behavior for a period of time. An awareness of the sensory qualities of daily events and the use of selected strategies at specific times throughout the day can help a child to feel calm, alert, and organized. These activities can be most effective when used in preparation for difficult transitions and when the child personally selects and directs them.
General guidelines for a sensory diet:
When implementing a sensory diet program, it is very important to remember:
Consultation or collaboration with an occupational therapist or a professional who is trained in sensory integration is essential to developing a program that is individualized for your child and designed to meet their needs.
A child’s responses to specific sensory activities may not always be consistent, especially if they have difficulty modulating sensory information in their environments. Designing an effective sensory diet takes creativity, careful detective work, and patience.
Hopefully this has been helpful in understanding the sensory diet needs of your little one. If your child has difficulty regulating emotions, interacting with their environment, or maintaining an optimal stimulation state, please contact us to see if Occupational Therapy is right for your child!