What is a Sensory Diet?

Stating I don’t use sensory diets is obviously a controversial topic. But is something that I think parents need to hear and to think about.

Sensory diets are a term that has started to get used a lot with kids that have sensory processing difficulties. This includes those with Autism.  Contrary to how the name “sensory diet” sounds like, it has nothing to do food.  But it has everything to do with giving your body or your child’s body sensory activities throughout the day. 

Essentially, sensations or information that our body receives from our senses is the “food” for our body’s nervous systems.  Sensations or sensory information is what our brain and nervous system needs to develop.  The better our brains and nervous system can process and organize the information; the easier development can take place.

Sensory diets is a series of activities that you can do at home.  Essentially, it is a routine of activities. Occupational Therapists will often assist with developing based on the needs of your child.  A sensory diet is a proactive approach to help your child feel more relaxed. It also helps them meet the demands of the day with greater ease.

An Example of Sensory Diets

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Let me give you an example of what sensory diets might look like for a child.  Perhaps this specific child has a vestibular system. Meaning that child is not processing movement and position in space very well. This might cause them to have a hard time waking up in the morning and calming down before bed. 

Also, maybe they are a very picky eater so mealtimes are often very stressful.  Using the information that would be gathered during an Occupational Therapy evaluation to better understand the child’s neurological system.

The Occupational Therapist might recommend the child bounce on a therapy ball first thing in the morning to wake up. Maybe do animal walks to the table before meals and jump on a trampoline in the afternoon. Then take a relaxing bath with calming music. After bath, when drying them off, maybe they would recommend deep squeezes by using the towel.

Making sure that your child gets “food” for their individual nervous system is a great way to be proactive and to help your child.  So then, why do I say that I don’t use sensory diets?

 Why I Don’t Use Sensory Diets

Let me start off by saying that I think the idea of using a sensory diet can be super useful! If you are using a sensory diet for your child, I am not saying that you shouldn’t be.  If something is working, please, by all means, keep doing it!

I just simply have realized from my experience, that I had to find something more doable for me. Being an Occupational Therapist that works with kids and being a mom of an Autistic child gave me this insight.  It’s sort of like translating something from theory to actual use. 

Realizing that the idea seems great on paper and incorporates sound evidenced-based information about how our neurological systems work and how to use sensations to affect how we feel.  So, then you get all set to do it and as a parent, you struggle because life is still happening and you have lots of things that you are also trying to do. 

Then when it dawns on you that you aren’t following the diet, then you beat yourself up.  It’s basically the exact same thing that many of us do when we are trying to do a food diet.  We think it sounds great because it does, but then we try to follow the plan for more than a day or two and we have a really hard time when we are in a hurry or tired or whatever else gets in our way. 

Add in having a child or multiple children that have more needs than other kids and I think that too many parents just give it up altogether and/or beat themselves up when they feel like they fail.

The other reason that I don’t use a “sensory diets” is because our days and our lives change constantly.  Some days are more stressful than other days, so my child might need to do more activities or more quiet time some days and not many other days. 

Also, the amount of sleep that my child gets each night varies a lot too.  This can make a huge difference in how he handles his day, even if it does seem like a less stressful day.  Having a set routine doesn’t seem to accommodate these changes and day to day fluctuations in the real world.  At least, from my experience.

So, to summarize these are the reasons I don’t do a “sensory diet” with my child and I don’t set up “sensory diets” for the families that I work with.

  1. Trying to follow through on a plan in the midst of everyday life is really hard because every day is different and there are tons of things that can happen to throw off routines.
  2. I don’t want to set up myself or the families are work with to feel like a failure if they can’t keep up the perfect sensory diet for their child consistently
  3. I recognize that not every day is the same for our children.  In fact, it’s not even close to the same.  What they need on certain days and at certain times is going to fluctuate.  I don’t think that we should feel like we have to force our child to jump on a trampoline at 3 pm if at that moment they just want to snuggle or they are still trying to recover from a meltdown from a long day at school.
  4. Just like with any food diet, too much of even a good thing can cause problems.  We have to understand our child and how their nervous system works so we can know how to respond and support our child.  Our kids can be very surprisingly sensitive to sensations that we really take for granted.  So, maybe 10 minutes on a swing is just right, but 15 minutes on a swing our child is all out of sorts for the rest of the day.

What I Do Instead of Sensory Diets

As I thought about the answer to this question, I realized it actually is a hard question to answer.  I started to realize that the changes that we have made to support my son are such an integrated part of our lives and days that very well might even not realize it anymore. 

Like I had said previously, I love the idea of a “sensory diet”, because of the focus on giving our nervous systems (or our child’s nervous system in this case) food to help it develop. 

So, I had to think how I could help my child get the information that he needed without setting myself up for failure and making sure that I was able to get the things that I needed to get done in my day done.  All while making sure I was taking into account my child’s nervous system and changes that happen within a day, week, and month.

Figuring out what this could really look like for my son and for our family really has been a journey and something that I am constantly tweaking. 

With that said, I realized that we needed to treat adding the extra sensory activities into his day and our day had to be a lifestyle change.  Not something that we added to our plate, but instead just a different kind of plate.  I had to make what we did feel natural.

Here’s How I Got Started

  1. To be honest, the very first thing that I had to do was to start by simplifying my schedule.  I realized I had added way too much on my plate.  If I am overwhelmed, I am not even able to pay attention to what my son needs, much less have the time to do anything about it.  If you need some more ideas or thoughts on how to do this you might want to check out episodes 3 and 24.
  2. Then, I just started to make it a non-negotiable to get outside every day whenever possible as much as possible.  Getting my kids outdoors meant working on their balance. Maybe, we walked across rocks or on the edges of the curb.  It encouraged us to practice using a scooter, throwing a ball for our dog, or climbing a rock wall at the park.  Hiking and swimming are great ways to help their bodies get stronger. Those activities also give information that is very organizing to their nervous system.  The fresh air and sunshine just puts us all in a better mood and gave us the ability to run and laugh together.  Even if it’s only for 10 minutes in light rain.  Quite frankly, I already had enough decisions to make and needed to limit my decision fatigue.
  3. I started to make sure that I was aware of how my son was doing throughout the day.  I didn’t just wait for a meltdown or for him to be struggling.  Being proactive is always way easier than trying to deal with the reaction.  I thought about what his tells were.  For example, for my son, when he starts to lose focus, I know that we need to do something to help his body feel better.  Trust your parenting instinct on this one!   Essentially, it ALWAYS goes back to understanding your child, not just trying to look for and find the perfect formula.  It turns out all of our nervous systems are different and so doing what worked for someone else, most likely will not work the same way for you.  If you want some ideas on how to observe and understand your child better, definitely check out episode 13 and 15. 
  4. If I started to see a pattern, then I started to think how we could change how we did things we were already doing.  For example, I started to add in a lot more cold smoothies through straws (check out sensory processing episode 8) as part of our mornings.  We read books at night laying on our stomachs or rocking in a rocking chair.  He takes hot baths with Epson salts and uses a weighted blanket.  Things that I know my child really enjoyed helped relieve stress for him, and ultimately gave him what his brain needed to be more organized and better able to participate in activities. 

Time To Be Real…

Honestly, my son still has days that he struggles with handling his stress levels and feeling grounded.  I am not always in a space to be paying attention. Sometimes his behavior is telling me he needs something. But, I miss it.  Life gets crazy sometimes, often more times than not!  I think I have just finally gotten to a place where I am able to give myself grace.  Or at least that I am recognizing the importance of handling my own stress. So, now, I can help him learn how to understand his own body and its needs better.

For the purpose of this episode, just start to think of how you can help your child get the sensory information that they need to engage in activities the best that they can.

But, ultimately, my goal has been to help him understanding his own body better.  I want him to understand how he can pay attention and understand his own body.  Understanding what is going on inside of our own bodies is really a whole other area of development and a system we call the interoception system. 

Really understanding what interoception is and how to help our children have better awareness of their own bodies is really a different topic and information.  Almost always, our Autistic children and sensory kiddos have a hard time with this. And why we do have to think about how we can help them manage the things they encounter in their day that are stressful for them…….

But, if you want to learn more about this definitely do a search on interoception. I loved this book.

I will end this episode with these thoughts…

Think about what your life is like. How you can start adding in some more outdoor play for your child.  Don’t forget to think outside of the box here. 

Think about what is relaxing for your child. How you can build that into activities that you are already doing.

Take care of yourself so you have the ability to be proactive. And to notice when your child has had too much of an activity or might need more activity.

Just remember, you totally got this!  You know your child better than anyone else. Trust that gut of yours and think about what is actually doable for your family.  Not just what is working for someone else or what you are being told that you need to do.  There is no magic formula or system, so you do you.

Candice Curtis is a licensed Occupational Therapist and the founder of Integrate Family. She is passionate about helping and empowering parents and their children.  Candice has advanced postgraduate training in theory, assessment, interpretation and treatment in Ayers Sensory Integration.  She is a Certified Autism Specialist with expertise in sensory processing, coordination disorders, learning disorders and executive functioning.  Candice also has 2 boys of her own at home, one of which is Autistic. Learn more about her here.

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