The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Diets - Activities, Templates, and More

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC November 24, 2020

Everything you need to know about sensory diets

What the heck is a sensory diet? 

How can you use a personalized sensory diet to help your child or your clients? 

We’re going to dive into the answers to these questions and more, so that you can better understand sensory processing, sensory preferences, and how to use your knowledge to create effective sensory diets! 

First, we need to start with understanding sensory processing and the challenges that can arise when your body and your brain don’t process sensory information.

Once we have that covered, then we can dive into using sensory diets to help with specific sensory processing challenges.


Let’s Talk about Sensory Processing 

Every single moment of every single day, you are bombarded by sensory information. From the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, your body is constantly receiving and interpreting sensory input from your environment. 

This sensory input is received through your body and decoded by your brain. Your brain tells your nervous system if the sensory input is a threat or not. Your brain is the control center that tells you what to do with all sensory information. 

Everyone processes the sensory world differently. We all have a unique sensory system! 

8 Sensory Systems

We all have 8 sensory systems - our 5 main ones that most of us learned about in school, plus 3 hidden senses! It’s important to understand these 8 senses and how specific sensory input affects your body and your emotions. 

The Visual System

This is your sense of sight - not how well you see, but how your brain interprets the visual information in your environment. Your visual system helps you move safely through your environment, maintain your balance, locate items you want / need, and perform daily self-care tasks. Additionally, different types of visual input can be alerting (bright lights) or calming (dim lights). 

The Auditory System

This is your sense of hearing - not how well you hear, but how your brain interprets the auditory information in your environment. Your auditory system allows you to engage in conversation, listen to your favorite podcast, and maintain safety while out in the world. Different types of auditory input can be alerting (fast paced music) or calming (noise machine). 

The Tactile System

This is your sense of touch. You have tactile receptors all over your body and even inside your mouth. Your tactile system allows you to detect danger (think of a mosquito landing on your arm), helps you understand your environment (think of the clothing you wear), and even assists with locating what you’re looking for (think of reaching into your bag without using your vision). Additionally, some types of tactile input can be alerting (tickling) and some types can be calming (massage). 

The Olfactory System 

This is your sense of smell. Your olfactory system is directly connected to your gustatory system (your sense of taste) and also assists with sensing danger. Additionally, your sense of smell is directly related to memory and emotions. Some types of olfactory input can be alerting (citrus) and some types can be calming (lavender).

The Gustatory System

This is your sense of taste and as just mentioned, is directly connected to your olfactory system (your sense of smell). Your sense of taste allows you to process and understand texture and flavor, as well as temperature. Different types of gustatory input can be alerting (sour) while some types can be calming (warm). 

The Proprioceptive System (a hidden sense)

This is your sense of movement and body position. You have receptors in your joints and muscles that tell your brain where your body is and what it's doing. This also allows you to understand how much force to use with certain tasks. Additionally, proprioceptive input is calming to the nervous system (heavy work and deep pressure). Deep pressure is also connected to the tactile system. 

The Vestibular System (a hidden sense) 

This is your sense of movement. Your vestibular system is located in your inner ears, therefore whenever your head moves, you activate your vestibular system. Additionally, this is directly connected to your visual system. Vestibular input is typically alerting (spinning, jumping) and can oftentimes be over-stimulating, meaning it is too much for the body and can cause an adverse reaction (such as nausea, irritability, or dizziness). Some types of vestibular input can be calming and regulating, such as slow linear swinging. It is often recommended to complete a proprioceptive (deep pressure or heavy work) task after a vestibular task in order to decrease any possible negative reactions. 

The final hidden sense - Interoception 

This is your sense of internal processing - hunger and thirst, needing to use the bathroom, when you feel sick, feeling tired, emotional regulation, etc. Interoception allows you to understand how you’re feeling in any given moment as well as helps you to meet your basic needs. 

Successful sensory processing includes processing and modulating all different types of input. This means that all 8 of your sensory systems are working efficiently in order to allow you to get through your day successfully. Occasionally something may happen that causes a challenge, such as being in a very noisy environment that causes you to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, you likely use a strategy to help - maybe you leave the room for a couple of minutes. You likely use a variety of sensory strategies throughout the day without even realizing it because it comes naturally! 

Sensory Processing Challenges 

Sensory processing challenges occur when the signals between the body and the brain get mixed up or aren’t received properly. This causes the brain to think that something is wrong, thus producing a physical and/or emotional reaction that doesn’t fit the situation. 

Oftentimes children with diagnoses of autism, ADHD, or other learning disabilities or developmental delays struggle with sensory processing. Additionally, there are children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) who specifically struggle with processing the sensory world. 

According to theStar Institute, “Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses.” 

Unfortunately, SPD is not a recognized diagnosis in theDSM-5… yet! We are hopeful that one day it will be. However, it’s important to note that anyone can have sensory processing challenges without an official diagnosis.

 

Child with SPD

If you'd like to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, we wrote a longer post breaking it down:The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder.

A true sensory processing challenge is not something that is just a phase or something that a child will just “grow out of.” It’s something that happens every time. Every day. And it causes difficulties for the entire family! At this point, you probably know if your child has a few sensory quirks or if they have true sensory processing challenges! 

For our children, these challenges might look like:

  • Inability to transition between activities, resulting in frequent meltdowns
  • Challenges attending for an age-expected amount of time to an age appropriate task
  • Difficulty with self-care tasks, resulting in meltdowns and consistent avoidance 
  • Challenges in social situations due to poor emotional regulation or anxiety 
  • Difficulty tolerating certain types of sensory input, such as clothing textures, food textures, or movement 
  • Constant seeking out of certain sensory input, causing disruption in daily routines and inability to attend to age appropriate tasks 

You may already know your child’s specific sensory challenges. They likely have more than one area of difficulty and those difficulties are likely in different sensory systems. Your child may be over-responsive to tactile and auditory input, while simultaneously craving vestibular input AND showing signs of dyspraxia and postural disorder! This is where it can feel overwhelming! 

But keep reading - next we’ll dive into sensory preferences and how you can use those preferences to create a personalized sensory diet! 

Sensory Preferences 

 

UPDATE ENDED HERE...

  

 

  • Incorporate specific “stops” and “starts”
  • Incorporate a variety of sensory input including movement and heavy work
  • Incorporate other senses such as touch, taste, scent, hearing
  • Be choice based - allow the child to choose preferred sensory tasks
  • Utilize a visual tool or schedule

The OT and/or OTA can help design a sensory diet specific to the child.


Creating a sensory diet for your child

Children with high arousal levels may need lots of proprioceptive based activities. Proprioceptive input is calming to the sensory and nervous system. Things that involve pushing, pulling, or "heavy work" are considered good proprioceptive input.

    Children with low arousal levels may need lots of vestibular based activities. Vestibular input is alerting to the sensory and nervous system. Things that involve swinging, jumping, spinning or running are great vestibular input.

      By the age of 10, children can do well with 10-minute breaks about every 2 hours. This means completing a sensory diet routine every 2-3 hours.

      Keep track of how the child’s affect changes. Are they more focused? More dysregulated? This will help the OT/OTA determine if changes need to be made to the Sensory Diet.

        Younger children and those with cognitive impairments may need input more frequently. Sensory Seekers typically need longer breaks- sensory diets with a longer duration- than Over-Responders or Under-Responders.

        For more information on the subtypes of Sensory Modulation, check out this podcast episode!

        Here’s a list of some of our favorite Sensory Diet Activities for each sensory system!

        Proprioceptive Input:

        • Animal walks (bear crawl, seal walk, lizard crawl, frog hopping, etc)
        • Wheelbarrow walking
        • Pushing/pulling a laundry basket full of books or toys around the room
        • Climbing a rock wall
        • Steamrolling with a therapy ball or cushion
        • Wearing wrist or ankle weights
        • Vibration
        • Weighted blankets
        • Weighted vests
          Vestibular Input:
          • Jumping on a trampoline
          • Swinging
          • Rolling down a grassy hill
          • Somersaulting
            Tactile Input:
            • Sensory bins full of a variety of textures (shredded paper, corn, pudding, etc)
            • Messy play
            • Vibration
            • Slime or putty
              Auditory Input:
              Oral Input:
              • Chewing gum
              • Blowing-through-a-straw games
              • Bubble mountain
              • Drinking smoothies through a straw
              • A variety of food flavors- sour, sweet, spicy
                Olfactory Input:
                Visual Input:
                • Wearing sunglasses or a baseball cap
                • Spinning Tops
                • Eye Spy games
                • Sand Timers
                • Games like Spot it

                Here’s a list of some of our favorite products we use during sensory diets:

                • Move Your Body Fun Deck Cards 
                • Sensory Diet Flash Card Deck 
                • Upper Body and Core Strength Flash Cards
                • Yogarilla Exercises and Activities 
                • Yogarilla Fun Deck
                • Arks Z-Vibe Single
                • Arks Z-Vibe Kit
                • Body Sock Sensory Sack
                • Bean Bag Chair
                • Compression Pants
                • Compression Shirt
                • Chewy Lego Chew Necklace
                • Harkla Hug
                • Lycra Tunnel
                • Textured Chewy
                • Too Tarts Sugar Free Sour Candy Spray
                • Warhead Super Spray Candy 
                • Therapy Ball
                • Weighted Vest
                • Weighted Blanket
                • Vibration Ball
                • Spot It
                • Vibrating Ankle Bands
                • Painters Tape - yes painters tape! There are tons of ways to stimulate the senses with this one product. We have a Mini Activity course that helps.

                For more in-depth information on sensory diets, make sure to check out our podcast and our Sensory DietCrash Course.

                These books are also a must read. They are full of helpful information and activity ideas:

                • The Out of Sync Child 
                • The Out of Sync Child Has Fun 

                  Helpful Sensory Diet Resources and Tools

                  Creating Sensory Diet Cards

                    We love using the Brainworks Sensory Diet creator tool to make specific Sensory Diets for our clients. Simply drag and drop the sensory diet picture card, print, laminate, add velcro dots, and you have yourself a sensory diet! They also have pre-packaged and printed resources to use as well! Here’s a free webinarto help get you started!

                    Sensory Diet Checklist

                    Keep in mind, your child can have severe adverse reactions to sensory activities without knowing what their sensory needs are. Here’s a simple sensory diet checklist you can fill out to learn more about their unique sensory preferences… and yours too!

                    Sensory Challenges Quiz

                    Unsure if your child has sensory challenges or not? 

                    We created this Sensory Challenge Quiz to see if your child may have sensory challenges which a sensory diet may help with!

                     

                    Sensory Diet Digital Course

                    If you're really ready to dive deep on Sensory Diets then our sensory diet course is a great place to start.

                    We run you through the different types of sensory inputs and how to tell which one your child needs right now. This is the best way to start implementing a personalized sensory diet at home for your child.

                    Or, if you're an OT, COTA, or educator looking to expand your sensory toolbox, this course is very helpful for that!

                    Click here to learn more about the Sensory Diet Course!

                     

                    Want to Dive Deeper? Listen to Our Podcast Episode on Sensory Diets

                     Listen & Subscribe on Your Platform of Choice:

                    Don't miss this helpful video about our 5 Step Recipe for a Sensory Diet

                     

                    We've also created a video all about Sensory Thresholds

                    If you'd like to learn about meeting the sensory threshold, make sure to watch our video!

                     

                     

                    Closing Thoughts

                    There’s no one size fits all approach to sensory diets. It takes consistency and patience to identify if a protocol is working or not. We suggest trying one sensory diet consistently for 2 weeks before modifying it or giving up completely.

                    Before you start implementing a sensory diet, we HIGHLY recommend consulting with an Occupational Therapist, like we discussed earlier. If your child’s sensory challenges are impeding their ability to get through daily tasks, they could benefit from the resources an OT has to share with you.

                    Make sure you’re working to reach your child’s sensory threshold! If they’re jumping off the walls and seem out of control, give them a structured activity that gives them that same input, rather than implementing an activity to try to calm them down.

                    Their sensory system is telling them that they need more input, more jumping, running, crashing, etc. Once you’ve provided the sensory input and met their threshold, then you can implement more of the ‘just right’ or ‘calm down’ activities to regulate their system.

                    If you've had success with using a sensory diet to meet your child's needs, we'd love to hear about it!

                     

                    Related Sensory Articles on Harkla

                    If you found this article useful, you may like our other articles about Sensory Processing Disorder:

                     

                    Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
                    Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

                    Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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