What is a Sensory Diet?

     Have you heard the term sensory diet? When we hear the word diet, we often think of food. We have a food pyramid to reference and know that we need certain amounts of vegetables, carbohydrates, proteins and sweets to maintain an optimal weight, overall health and state of well-being. Depending on our personal factors such as metabolism, physical characteristics, food sensitivities and activity level, we aim to regulate our intake of nutrients to meet individual needs. This regulation keeps our system running at an optimal level. Many can even identify foods that make them feel better or worse when eaten in varying amounts. This is common knowledge, well accepted and even taught within our schools. What if I told you that food wasn’t the only diet we need to regulate. There is perhaps an even more important diet to attend to not at all related to calories.

     Every day, in addition to food derived nutrition, our brain requires a different set of fulfillment : Sensory input. This individualized set of sensory activities is know as our sensory diet and every person has individual needs that are being consciously or unconsciously fulfilled. This diet consists of sensations including vision, touch, sound, taste, smell, movement and a sense of our internal functioning. The way these sensations are taken in, regulated, interpreted, processed and regurgitated through our behavior is important for daily life. Processing this input may be vital to your overall well-being and happiness. In addition, the way you take in this information and process it can greatly influence how you function in society, social situations and may even be prescribed or regulated.
     As adults, most of us regulate this on our own. Some may go running daily to fulfill movement, some may turn their socks inside out and cut the tags out of shirts to reduce certain touch, or tactile sensation, others may ask for a massage from their partner to increase deep pressure feeling in their tissue. Some may be glued to a video game to soak in visual stimulation and others may prefer meditation or yoga to reduce stimuli. Some, like myself, may get too overstimulated in big box stores and run for the parking lot before reaching the checkout. Ever leave a cart full of stuff in WalMart? While most adults regulate this diet without even knowing it, for children it’s a different story.
     Just as we regulate our children’s diets, encouraging vegetables and limiting sugary snacks and processed foods, we may also need to regulate sensation. For some children, regulating their sensory diet is the difference between happy fun-filled and emotionally distraught days. In addition, typically children are unaware of this sensory diet, how to fulfill it, when it’s appropriate to take in sensory needs and how to do so within our social norms. It’s possible to be both under and over fulfilled on sensation and this can have a direct impact on behavior, how others perceive us and participation in daily life. An Occupational Therapist, trained in this area, can administer tests and recommend a sensory diet if needed. She may ask for input from the parent about triggering events, reactions to sensation and daily activities and when the child’s system appears to be unbalanced.

    How do we tell what sensations are on over or under load? Is the child screaming in the midst of a meltdown over-fulfilled by the sights, lighting and sounds at Wal-Mart? Does it happen every time or just when a nap is missed? Is the child who can’t sit still in his chair at school under-fulfilled in movement after sitting for 20 minutes? Does it always happen in a certain setting, time of day or with a certain group of individuals? Is the child flapping his hands under-fulfilled by the situation and increasing his sensory input or overstimulated and calming with flapping? While as adults we know when and how to meet our needs, children need guidance and possibly even environmental and activity adaptation.
     As I write this, I’m watching my 5 year old bounce up and down in the living room on the hard wood floor. He’s what’s known as a Sensory Seeker. He seeks sensation, specifically movement and compression of his joints (proprioception), and is unaware of when it’s socially appropriate to do so. This is something I’m teaching him, and working on fulfilling daily. I try my best to fulfill his proprioceptive needs at home so he’s not bouncing on the sofa at Grandma’s, hopping down the aisles at the grocery store, or running in circles at eleven o’clock at night when we both really need to be sleeping. Just as our system tells us when we need to eat, it also tells us when we need sensation. While adults know to wait until after work to meet these needs, children have developing systems and often don’t exhibit the same level of control.

(Pinterest Graphic Below)

     As an Occupational Therapist, I’m able to identify and provide interval, Mom inspired interventions for his movement needs, and recognize when he’s been under-fulfilled. While my husband may become frustrated with my son spinning in circles in the living room, I know it’s time to blow up our little bounce house. He can bounce out his need for proprioception, in a socially acceptable manner. A child jumping in a bounce house appears completely normal, a child bouncing up and down on furniture is often viewed as demonstrating problem behavior. Social norms play a huge rule in the identification of sensory diet needs and I’m sure that many of the parents yelling “go outside to play, no running in the house!” can identify with me.
     How are other parents to tell? While sensory diets are often prescribed for children with spectrum diagnoses, those diagnosed sensory processing disorders behavior concerns or those labeled “problem” child behaviors… every child, and adult for that matter, has sensory needs. Observation is key. Keeping notes, recognizing time of day, activity and the environment when issues arise can provide a diary of very important information. Does your child hold their hands over their ears in noisy situations to reduce sound stimuli? Do you find that
every day at 12:00 a child’s behavior turns into screaming and movement triggered by an internal hunger sensation. I think most of us can identify with that, however as adults we simply get out something to eat! A child may need to be fed a snack at 11:30 to head this off if expected to wait until noon. As a Mom I notice a direct correlation between hunger and behavior and I have a purse full of goodies!

     If you’re reading this article and nodding your head, I can only recommend that you find a sensory processing disorder trained OT. Why OT? Jean Ayres, a historic Occupational Therapist, first identified the need for sensory processing and the way in which the sensory systems work together to produce function. Her development of sensory integration theory continues to inspire, direct and help understand the complex way in which the human body functions. While some individuals may qualify for a sensory processing disorder diagnoses, identified by testing, others are simply fulfilling their sensory diet needs. When do sensory needs become part of  a disorder? The simple answer is, when they interfere with every day activities. When the complex system that take in sensory information, processes it and produces a multi-system reaction interferes with participation in activities of daily living, a visit to your favorite Occupational Therapist. You can read more about Jean on Wikipedia 

This article is in no way meant to replace the advice of  your physician or provide individual recommendations. Please consult your physician and trained Occupational Therapist to provide individual recommendations for yourself or your child. An OT trained in this area has undergone special education, training and skill in giving tests to help identify these areas and provide recommendations for individual needs. 

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_processing_disorder
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Jean_Ayres
3. http://www.aota.org/~/media/Corporate/Files/AboutOT/Professionals/WhatIsOT/CY/Fact-Sheets/FactSheet_SensoryIntegration.pdf

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