The first time I heard my daughter's therapist mention the word sensory diet my mind immediately thought - the elimination of foods to assist in behaviour management. Great! Another thing to throw into the mix to make life just that extra bit challenging.
But to my delight it had nothing to do with a diet and didn’t involve any type of restriction actually. Turns out it was more about adding things rather than taking away.
So… What is a sensory diet?
Basically, it is a carefully planned program or schedule that provides your child with tools and activities at different intervals throughout the day to support regulation.
Reality is we all need and acquire sensory input throughout the day to help us function, to keep our mind calm and to subconsciously meet our daily needs. You might go for a run when you need energy, sit down when you are feeling tired, listen to music when you are feeling overwhelmed…all of which are actions you naturally incorporate. Children with sensory processing issues or autism need assistance to help maintain their sensory systems, they rely on activities and sensory strategies to assist in keeping them regulated and in control.
Key guidelines to successfully implement a sensory diet
-Seek guidance from an occupational therapist first, they can help you develop a sensory diet checklist
-Never force an activity. A sensory diet is meant to bring calmness and it shouldn’t be seen as a chore for the child.
-Pick manageable activities for both you and your child. You don’t want this to be a stressful intervention strategy.
-Have a toolbox of ideas. Just because something worked on one day doesn’t mean it will work again.
-Make sure you are equipped with information first as this will make it easier to manage. Understand why and how you will incorporate a sensory diet into your child’s day.
Sensory diet activities for a 3-year-old
While by no means am I qualified to implement and give advice for sensory individual diets, you need a proffessional for this...I do have my own experiences and have implemented many sensory activities for my daughter and other children I've taught. No two sensory diets will look the same. While some children are sensory seekers others are sensory avoiders. While some children’s diet might have a lot of vestibular activities others might incorporate a lot of tactile and oral activities. This is why it is important to seek guidance from your child’s therapist so you can successfully find the right ‘ingredients’ for your child’s sensory diet. You need to be aware of what your child needs are (avoidance or seeking), at what points during the day they require sensory input and how long for. The good news is that there are many different strategies and activities that can be used in a sensory diet, here are a few ideas for a three-year old.
The vestibular system is one of the sensory systems that can have the biggest effect on a child’s behaviour, it includes any activity that moves the head in different planes. It helps control our balance, eye movements and spatial orientation, when there is difficulty processing vestibular input, we can feel off balance and out of control.
Picture a class of children getting restless after their first session of writing. The teacher may say “Ok everyone let’s shake your sillies out so we are ready to learn”. This can be just the amount of Vestibular input that some of the children need to regain focus and attention.
Some children are vestibular seekers while others may avoid this type of movement, in general fast movements tend to alert and slow movements tend to calm. Here are some examples of simple movements and activities to gain vestibular input.
-Swinging (hammock, swings, blanket rocking)
The proprioceptive system provides us with a sense of body awareness. This type of input can assist in controlling responses to sensory stimuli, therefore is an important part of a sensory diet. Essentially activities that involve heavy lifting, pushing, stretching or deep pressure are great ways to stimulate the proprioceptive system. For example, imagine that you’re at the grocery store and your child is running wild and you just know it’s going to end badly. Getting them to help load the trolley with heavy items or push the trolley is a good strategy to use to try to diffuse their over reactive behaviour. This heavy work activity can stimulate their sense of proprioceptive input and meet their sensory needs with little effort.
Here are some ideas of proprioceptive activities.
-Pushing a trolley or cart
-Carrying a backpack
-Picking up heavy items
-Jumping on a trampoline
-Hanging from monkey bars
-Bouncing on a yoga ball
-Squeezing (stress balls, playdough, putty)
-Stretching and pulling on a yoga band
-Eating crunchy foods
-Blowing and chasing bubbles
The tactile sense detects light touch, deep pressure, temperature, vibration and texture. The tactile system provides information which is required for every activity in daily life. It is a necessary component for adequate sensory integration.
Perhaps you have just transitioned to the car from a playdate and your child is quite heightened and overly excited still. More often than not this can lead to emotions exploding and a meltdown erupting. Maybe a weighted animal could be just the right amount of Tactile input that they seek to regain some calmness.
Here are some fun ways to encourage tactile activities into your child’s sensory diet.
-Sensory boards (different textures to rub and feel glued down on a board)
-Using pipettes to put warm water on ice to melt it
-Stress balls, putty, fidget toys
-Messy play (shaving crème, finger painting, arts and craft)
-Sucking on an ice block
It's important to remember that a sensory diet is a specific set of sensory activities designed to meet specific needs of an individual. The keywords here being ‘specific and ‘individual’, it’s not a one size fits all approach.
The implementation of a successful sensory diet requires the expertise of an Occupational therapist to assess and trial what does and doesn’t work for your child. It’s a toolbox of sensory activities that assist an individual to function, a child can not survive on apples alone. Likewise, a child with sensory needs cannot function on just one sensory strategy alone.