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Just as your child needs food throughout the course of the day, he needs sensory input, and opportunities for getting away from stimulation, spread out over the whole day. A “sensory diet” (a term coined by OT Patricia Wilbarger) is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. In the same way that you jiggle your knee or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, children need to engage in stabilizing, focusing activities, too. Infants, young children, teens, and adults with mild to severe sensory issues can all benefit from a personalized sensory diet. A sensory diet should be customized for an individual child, but usually, the template includes what's to be done during the morning and bedtime routines, meals, and major transitions throughout the day.

Each child has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a child whose nervous system is causing her to be hyperactive needs more calming input, while the child who is more underactive or sluggish needs more arousing input. A qualified pediatric occupational therapist can use her advanced training and evaluation skills to develop a good, custom sensory diet for your child (or for you, if you’re an adult with sensory processing disorder). However, it’s up to you and your child to implement it every day and let the OT know whether the diet needs adjusting. If your child is too wired to settle down for a nap or bedtime, or is lethargic at dinner time, you need to consider altering the sensory diet. The goal is focused and alert throughout the day, good self-regulation of mood and energy and focus, and smooth transitions from one activity to another.

The effects of a sensory diet are usually immediate AND cumulative. Activities that perk up your child or calm him down are not only effective in the moment; they actually help to restructure your child’s nervous system over time so that he is better able to:

  • tolerate sensations and situations he finds challenging
  • regulate his alertness and increase his attention span
  • limit sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors
  • handle transitions with less stress

    Creating a Sensory Diet: The Ingredients

    Ideally, in creating a sensory diet, you work with a sensory smart occupational therapist who is skilled and experienced at working with sensory processing issues. Note that an OT who has only worked with young children may be challenged by working with teens or adults. You’ll find many sensory diet ideas and accommodations for children, or teens, with SPD and/or autism in the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child that can help you and your OT create the best sensory diet for your son or daughter. One of the trickiest aspects of SPD is recognizing when a child is overreactive or underreactive in any given moment, and then adjusting sensory input so that he doesn’t experience “sensory overload.” The goal is to provide a “just right challenge” to help him move forward into being not too active, not too inactive. That’s why it’s important to partner up with knowledgeable professional if you can. Raising a Sensory Smart Child, which includes the Sensory Checklist you can print here, is geared toward building your “sensory smarts” so that you can better help your child.

    What age is the person you and your OT are planning a sensory diet for? Choose one of the age groups below to discover some appropriate sensory diet activities.

    A good sensory diet takes into account all the senses that are involved in sensory processing disorder. There are 7 of them: Do you know what they are? Click here for more information on the 7 (yes, 7!) senses.

    CLICK HERE to find a sensory smart occupational therapist.

    Click Here to look at a sample of a Sensory Diet.

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