Creating an effective sensory diet can be challenging, but for the child with a sensory processing disorder, having a good sensory diet in place can mean the difference between a relatively smooth family outing and one that is miserable, between a ‘good’ day at school and a day of struggles. As always it is strongly recommended that you develop your home program with the assistance of an occupational therapist who has a strong understanding of sensory processing.
- Be a detective. Children are unique; as are their response to sensory input. An activity such as bouncing on a hoppity ball may be organizing and grounding for one child, but may rev another child up, leading to escalated, out-of-bounds behavior. Carefully observe your child’s response to various activities, and let his or her responses guide you in selecting activities. Also recognize that what works on one day, may not on another. Your child’s sleep, nourishment, wellness, etc. can have a significant impact on day-to-day response to sensory input.
- Use sensory strategies judiciously. Carefully consider the type of sensory input being provided, its impact and the order in which activities are used. Vestibular activities tend to be more excitatory, particularly if they involve rotation or jumping. Because vestibular input is so strong, it is highly recommended that your child control rotary input, so that their nervous system is not inadvertently overwhelmed. Linear vestibular input, such as swinging or rocking tends to be organizing. Deep pressure and heavy work activities provide grounding and organizing input and are often good to use after more vigorous movement. An oral activity involving blowing or sucking can provide effective calming and transition at the end.
- Tune into your child’s interests. Look at your child’s interests and use these interests to make the sensory activities more enticing. Often parents tell me their children won’t engage in the sensory diet activities or will only do so briefly. Harness the power of their interests and imaginations. This year we had one child who came to therapy willingly when it was renamed: Jedi Training and the activities focused on skills needed to be a Jedi. We have also had multiple rounds of Angry Birds played out live-action in the clinic. Children build walls with large cardboard blocks and then place pig bean bags on top and this is then incorporated into a sensorimotor game.
- Establish consistency. Make the sensory diet part of the daily routine. A visual system like SticKids, developed with your therapist, can provide the structure for a program that is as consistent yet adaptable. The visual cues can be helpful to your child in developing their own ability to organize and implement their sensory diet. For many children, having specific routines for certain times of the day works really well. One child would hold it together during kindergarten but inevitably have a meltdown before reaching the car to go home. Her mother in conjunction with the therapist developed a routine where she met her daughter at the kindergarten door with a starburst (organizing oral input). At the car, her mother immediately did the DPPT brushing protocol, implemented the Therapeutic Listening program, and gave her a snack. Then they went to a playground for 30 minutes of heavy work, before heading home.
- Keep a log. Track your child’s behavior and sensory experiences. Look for the little clues that precede a meltdown or out-of-bounds behavior; as intervening early can often provide the sensory input that your child needs to help them stay regulated. When your child has ‘good’ days, often the log can be helpful in identifying contributors, which can then be replicated. One family found, that timing was very important. Their child needed an hour and a half of heavy work before 1:00 pm for the rest of the day to be successful.
Effectively implementing a sensory diet can seem like a lot of work, but the pay-off is so worthwhile. Helping your child achieve better regulation makes their life and yours better.