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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sensory Diets Made Easy

"Sensory Diets" can be very confusing! If you are reading this, you probably already know that these diets have nothing to do with food or losing weight. They are simply a list or schedule of activities and adaptations designed to help an individual child or adult to
  • engage, focus and learn to the best of their ability
  •     bring their alertness level to "just right"  (see chart) so that they are not over-stimulated/agitated/running high nor under-stimulated/lethargic/running low. 
  • The terms "seekers" and "avoiders" describe how people seek out the types of sensory stimulation that make them feel good and meet their sensory needs OR avoid the types of sensory stimulation that make them upset. Many people are BOTH! 
Sensory diets are frequently designed and updated by occupational therapists. They are individualized for the person and should be monitored and updated because a person's sensory needs  change as he or she develops and other life factors such as changes in health, school,  stressors such as birth of a sibling.... etc. 

As an occupational therapist I use a lot of trial and error, based on my professional training and 40 plus years of experience (including with my own son who is on the spectrum).  However, there are some basic sensory diet principles that can help parents and other caregivers to create sensory diets at home.   

Sensory Basics 

1) "Sensory Processing" is how a person receives, interprets and responds to sensations such as what one sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes and movement.
2) Children or adults may have a "Sensory Processing Disorder" SPD. This is rather complex. There are several subtypes of SPD, so please check out this  detailed  description: Types of Sensory Processing disorders  
3) Many children have SPD and do NOT have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, many if not most people with ASD have SPD challenges such as sensitivities to stimuli and challenges to  engage and learn.  

1) Proprioception, 2) Tactile and 3) Vestibular Sensory  Systems 

These are the 3 sensory systems that are probably least familiar to you and the most important when creating sensory diets. You can think about stimulating the other senses with music, lights,  taste, smell etc. However, it is these 3 senses that create the basis of a sensory diet: 
1) Proprioception: stimulation to muscles and joints has a big impact on body awareness and coordination
2) Tactile: stimulation to skin with a focus on heavy or deep pressure
3) vestibular: our balance system impacted by movement and how we respond to the pull of gravity  


1) Let the child decide how much stimulation they want and need.
2) Its best if they can control the stimulation such as stopping a swing or removing a weighted vest.
3)Frequently stop and ask if he or she wants more. Perhaps they will communicate with a smile, pointing, signing more or touching a picture.
4) Weighted vests should not be more than 5-10% of the person's body weight. Work with an occupational therapist to determine the best weight or use a different type of weight such as a lap bag.
5) The body acclimates or gets used to weight so the impact wears off after about 30 minutes. Therefore, consider removing wrist, ankle, vest, lap or shoulder pad weights to wear again later.
6) Do not use weighted blankets with babies or others who are unable to remove them.
7) Stop if the sensory activity is causing increased agitation, disorientation, dizziness, nausea, changes in breathing, has pale, clammy skin- especially if a child is spinning.
8) Many people with SPD do not like light touch, especially tickles. It may cause agitation. They may use their fingertips to avoid touch to their palms.

Sensory Diet Schedules ?

Some children prefer a visual schedule because they need predictability- to know where, when and  how long activities last.  This helps them to control their environment in a confusing sensory world. But not everybody needs a visual schedule. 

Some caregivers or teachers find it easier to implement scheduled routines. If this is helpful, please go for it. However, try to add sensory experiences throughout the day based on your child's preferences, what you learn here and trial and error.  

Heavy Work: stimulates muscles and joints. Provide activities that use force: pushing, pulling, rubbing or squeezing objects. 

  • Carry heavy objects
  • Pass or toss heavy bags of sand
  • Wash the car, wash your pets!
  • Wipe tables and white boards clean
  • push a wagon or wheel barrow 
  • dig and transport sand, water or soil
  • push or pull a friend sitting on a scooter board or a sheet   
  • Roll up inside a heavy blanket
  • Arm wrestle
  • Squeeze bottles- chocolate into milk, shampoo at bath time
  • Play tug-of-war
  • build a snowman  
  • Feed a tennis ball money or other small objects (see photo)   

Source: Playing Catch with Bags of Sand is Great for Sensory Processing Disorders by RecyclingOT

Add Vibration

Vibration stimulates muscles and joints. The sound may help children to focus on a task.  Offer vibrating toys or put a motor inside an existing toy or activity. Many children LOVE vibration! Check out the video for more ideas....

Add Weight to objects and activities throughout the day

Pushing heavy bags of sand into small container opening
Wearing heavy weighted bag on lap
Roll heavy Medicine balls
Go bowling.....
Push a heavy supermarket cart

Source: How to Make Sensory Shoulder or Lap Pads for Children with Autism by RecyclingOT


Slow movement can be calming for overstimulated people
Fast movement can alert those with lethargy but can also be calming
  • Playground: Swings, seesaws, slides, merry go rounds
  • scooter boards 
  • rocking chair, glider chair (slow movement can help calm)
  • Trampolines 
  • Moving heavy objects from high to low, low to high 
  • Cycling, skiing, backpacking and other sports

Source: Sensory-Motor Activities for Individuals with Autism by RecyclingOT

Play Zoom Ball

Zoom ball can be purchased or home made. It can be played indoors or outdoors and helps burn off excess energy while developing coordination .....

Source: Make Zoom Ball for Individuals with Autism by RecyclingOT

Oral Motor Sensory Strategies

  • Sucking through skinny straws requires force
  • Thicken drinks with yoghurt, smoothies, purees so that it takes force to drink through the straw
  • Blow whistles, kazoos and other toy instruments
  • Blow pinwheels, cotton balls off the table
  • Chew gum
  • Eat crunchy foods
  • commercial chewable tools

Learn more about sensory diets, sensory processing disorders and autism in my book: From Flapping to Function: A Guide to Autism and Hand Skills