When it comes to the word diet, we often think of food. However, there is another very important diet that directly impacts our day to day functioning — a Sensory Diet which consists of activities that are chosen for a child based on their sensory needs.
For this diet, our bodies receive sensations from our environment and transmit that information to our brains. They way that our brains then process that information impacts how we function in the world. For some individuals, having too much input or too little stimulation can make a big difference in their day to day functioning. This can directly impact performance at school, work and even an individual’s ability to be social with others. For others, it’s something we regulate without thought and fold seamlessly into our lives.
The Basics of a Sensory Diet
In a sensory diet, sensory information may be recommended in daily amounts. What senses are included in a sensory diet? Growing up I was taught five senses. Touch, hearing, smell, vision and taste.
When I entered Occupational Therapy school I learned that there were more. There are not five, but seven senses. What did conventional learning leave out? Movement sensation and the sense we have of our internal organ systems. To therapists, these are often referred to as Proprioception and Interoception, and they play a vital role in everyday functioning.
Imagine trying to complete an activity with a full bladder, or empty stomach for that matter. The sensations from these systems may directly impact your performance on an activity. Now imagine you’re five years old and trying to sit in a classroom with the full bladder. The impact may be far greater and, in combination with a medical diagnosis, may make participating very difficult. This is where a sensory diet may come in.
Why Occupational Therapy? Jean Ayers, an Occupational Therapist, is the Mother of Sensory Integration Theory. She is well known for her work on sensory integration ie: how the sensory system works with the rest of the body to produce the human being you see out in the world. The way we take in information, from our senses, process it in our brain and use it to function in society.
For some people, this system works seemingly flawless and requires no attention. For others, the sensory information they take in can interfere with daily functioning and their activities of daily living. For some of these individuals, a sensory diet may be prescribed by an Occupational Therapist trained in this field.
What does sensory dysfunction look like?
As an OT I ask myself, is the child having a meltdown in Walmart overstimulated by the lights and sounds? Is the child flapping his hands under-stimulated by the classroom and increasing their own sensory input? Is the child spinning in circles among a group of adults increasing their movement input and searching for ways to excite their nervous system? All possible.
How do you tell?
Over time, observing and keeping notes is important.
Looking for correlations:
Do certain behaviors happen in similar environments?
Does the child always have a meltdown in seriously overstimulating big box stores, or did they miss a nap that day?
Occupational Therapy assessment and intervention can help identify functional issues and may recommend a sensory diet to follow. In addition, they may also be able to suggest ways to fill sensory needs in socially acceptable ways.
Social norms play a large role in the identification of sensory disorders. As part of a sensory diet, an OT may look for ways to meet these needs that fit social norms. Fulfilling movement or proprioception in a bounce house instead of on a relative’s sofa is far more socially acceptable or doing some work activities before school to reduce hand flapping might help a student participate in classroom activities. However sensory needs are met, how they impair or encourage daily functioning is key and meeting these needs through a fulfilling diet is one we should all follow.
Connect with Jeanette on her blog Mama Bananas Adventures
Ways to Incorporate Sensory Activities into Your Life
You can also find all of the sensory activities we have shared on our site in our sensory play archives 🙂
Additional Reading and Resources
Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, Revised EditionUnderstanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals: A Practical Daily Use Handbook for Parents and TeachersSensory Diet Card Deck – Super Duper Educational Learning Toy for Kids