“What is a sensory diet?”
A lot of people hear the term sensory diet and immediately think “food and recipes”. A sensory diet is far from this – it is actually a planned activity schedule to support the functional needs of a child on a day to day basis. Sensory diets are ‘based on the principle that individuals require a certain quality and quantity of sensory experiences to be skilful, adaptive and organized in their daily lives’ (Wilbarger, p. 339). Time of day, duration and intensity of such sensory experiences greatly impacts the effect of a sensory diet. Most adults do this instinctively – for example, if you are having difficulty doing your work you might get up and go for a walk or make yourself a coffee. Children will still often need support with their ability to organise the environment around them.
All individuals have different sensory preferences. Occupational therapists will often create sensory diets for clients who are experiencing sensory processing or modulation difficulties. The activities chosen for the schedule should support the goals of the child and his or her family. Different sensory experiences have different effects on behaviour and skill development. There are a variety of reasons a sensory diet might be a useful part of therapy including:
- Supporting a child who has difficulty with sleep routines
- Reducing sensory defensive or avoidant responses
- Helping a child maintain focus and attention for longer periods of time at school
- Improving a child’s ability to self-regulate.
Sensory diets may also include the adapting a child’s daily routine, ‘changes to the environment, modification of social interactions and suggestions for appropriate leisure and play activities’ (Wilbarger, p. 340). This diet or activity schedule should be used in all settings for the child – home, school and the community.
An example of a child’s sensory diet who needs support to self-regulate might include:
- A chance to play on the playground before school commencing
- Regular movement breaks during the day at school to help focus
- Intense physical activity after school – eg trampoline
- Deep pressure massage prior to settling to sleep
It is important that a sensory diet be individualised to a child’s sensory needs and preferences.
Julia Wilbarger & Patricia Wilbarger,”Clinical Application of the Sensory Diet” in Anita C. Bundy, Shelly J. Lane, Elizabeth A. Murray, Sensory Integration: Theory and Practice, 2002.