I was speaking with someone in a social media group the other day who was discussing her daughter’s sensory sensitivities and was essentially asking for advice on what she could do to help her daughter. One of the things that I recommended to her was a sensory diet. Now, I’m familiar with what a sensory diet is and the basic inner workings of piecing one together, and in my natural autie style, I got so caught up in answering her and assumed that she would automatically know what a sensory diet was because I did. I was wrong. She promptly responded saying her daughter didn’t eat food. It was then that I realized she thought that I had meant a diet in the traditional sense of the word. I had to take a couple of steps back and explain myself. So now, on to what a sensory diet actually is…
A sensory diet isn’t about changing your eating habits or limiting food intake. It’s about improving self-regulation and making sure sensory needs are met through a careful selection of sensory-based activities. Sensory diets are commonly used for both those of us who are autistic and for those of us with sensory processing disorder or who have other sensory needs to be met.
They stem from the field of occupational therapy, in which an occupational therapist makes note of the areas in which someone is either hyper-reactive or hypo-reactive and comes up with a plan or sensory diet to regulate the individual in those areas. For instance, if someone is over-reactive, the occupational therapist will choose to implement activities which are down-regulating or calming, and if they are under-reactive, the occupational therapist will choose to implement those activities considered to be up-regulating or stimulating.
People often need both up-regulating and down-regulating activities throughout their day, and sometimes simultaneously. Additionally, what is calming or down-regulating for one person may have the exact opposite effect on someone else. For example, if I were to jump repeatedly off of the couch onto a crash mat it would be stimulating for me in terms of vestibular input, but if B were to do the same thing, it would help him to regulate and calm down as he would expel excess energy.
Growing up, most people are taught that people have five senses and that the idea of a sixth sense is just a myth or the title of a movie, but we actually have eight senses. Yeah, eight…fascinating, right? Mind blown. These last three are essentially the non-observable of the senses, as in, they don’t surround things that you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell but they provide vital feedback for us via sensory receptors like sensors in our muscles and inner ear. These three senses include:
Proprioception: Deals with where your body is in space and where your body parts are, relative to each other. It stems from sensory receptors in your muscles, joints, ligaments, and other connective tissues.
Vestibular: Stems from sensory receptors within your inner ear and deals with balance, the direction you are moving, and the how and where behind your movements, kind of like an internal GPS.
Interoception: This one is lesser-known to most that proprioception and vestibular, but is quite interesting. It has to do with what’s going on inside your body at the physiological level, i.e., if you’re hungry, thirsty, what your heart rate feels like, or whether you have to go to the bathroom.
As I mentioned before, not everyone needs the same type of sensory input and not everyone will need input for all of these areas. Some people may primarily target vestibular and tactile, while others may need to mainly focus on oral and proprioception, or any combination of the eight. However, it’s important to consider each area and think about what you need in order to create the most well-rounded and effective sensory diet as possible for your particular needs. Proprioceptive, vestibular, and oral activities are definite favorites of B’s, while I’m partial to tactile and proprioceptive activities to meet my needs much of the time.
I think a good sensory diet can become a part of your daily routine. It doesn’t necessarily need to be all laid out, minute by minute, but having time in place throughout the day for opportunities for sensory diet activities can be vital for regulation.
I say that it should be more of a routine and less of a fixed schedule because there are times when you will need more or less input or different types of input than others. Sometimes you will do the same sorts of sensory regulating activities daily, like using a weighted blanket or jumping on a rebounder, but other times input becomes more situational and is based on your need for that point in time. In this case, sensory diet activities or items should be available, but trying to doing X activity at 3:05pm each day, followed by Y activity at 3:15pm could prove to be potentially more stressful than the stress you’re trying to avoid by doing said activities in the first place. So I say have your sensory supports in place, but use them to your advantage to get what you need at a given point in time. The main goals of a sensory diet are to make things more manageable and to help people to self-regulate.
The Senses and Related Input:
- Texture and Substance: soft, smooth, bumpy, gooey, sticky, slippery, rough, gritty, stiff, pliable, etc.
- Things that can be moved such as fidget toys
- Feeling of clothing, blankets, lap pads, stuffed animals
- Hanging upside down
- Jumping off of objects
- Riding roller coasters, bicycles, skateboarding, skating
- Lifting heavy things/heavy work
- Weighted Blankets and other weighted items
- Compression clothing, squeezing
- Exercises involving stretching
- Rolling over an exercise ball
- Using crash mats
- Chewing chewy jewelry, gum, crunchy or hard foods
- Blowing bubbles, small musical instruments, party blowers
- Sucking straws, ice, hard candy
- Repetition of sound, resonance, listening to music, singing or humming, playing an instrument
- Headphones and Earmuffs
- Sound/Sleep Machines
- Sound Tubes
- Moving or spinning objects, patterns, certain colors, repetition of visual stimuli
- Mazes and hidden picture books
- Lava Lamp
- Optical Illusions
- Stimulating and soothing scents
- Scratch N Sniff
- Scented Markers, Crayons, Pencils
- Scented Bubbles
- Essential Oils
- Scented Playdough
- Diffuser Jewelry
This one’s tricky, in that it deals with those internal, physiological sensations, but here are a few activities related to interoception:
- Meditative and mindfulness activities
- Alternate nostril breathing
- Verbally labeling emotions
How You Can Outline Your Sensory Diet
- Pinpoint periods during the day or certain situations when you feel overwhelmed/overloaded or underwhelmed and out of it
- Take a look at the different types of areas of input and pick ones that seem most appealing to you. What do you need more of and what do you need less of?
- What would you like to do daily and when can you fit these into your routine? Maybe you want to jump on a rebounder first thing each morning and sit with a weighted blanket on each afternoon and have a cup of warm tea. Trying things out a little bit each day can help you to stay regulated
- What are those things that may be helpful for you if you, not necessarily daily, but in certain situations? Things like playing with silly putty while you talk on the phone or take an exam…
Overall, sensory diets look differently for each individual person, but they can help us to provide some regulation, which can help prevent overload, meltdowns, shutdowns, and can just make us feel better and healthier overall.