A sensory diet provides specific sensory rich activities (or sensations) at regular intervals throughout the day. This is specific to meet the needs of a child or adult. For this article, I focus on the child. However, adults can have the same issues.
A sensory diet encourages optimal attention and concentration on tasks and prevents “overload” of sensations. A person who experiences an “overload” of sensations, feels overwhelmed and out of control. This can create avoidance of situations or tasks and meltdowns or tantrums.
Your child can follow a sensory diet to prevent these feelings. A sensory diet is similar to a food diet. You eat food at regular intervals throughout the day to prevent feelings of hunger. You also eat regularly to ensure optimal blood sugar levels to encourage concentration and focused attention.
A sensory diet is used to assist the sensitive person to cope throughout the day, to prevent feelings of being overwhelmed, to prevent meltdowns and tantrums and to encourage optimal attention and concentration. A sensory diet uses different sensations in activities according to the needs of the child or adult.
“Avoider” vs “Seeker”
In sensory processing and sensory integration terms we talk of sensory avoiders or sensory seekers. An avoider is in general a sensitive person who can easily be overwhelmed and usually avoids sensory busy environments. These environments can include shopping malls (visual overload), concerts (auditory / hearing overload), movies (visual and auditory overload), spicy food (taste overload), carnival rides (movement overload), fish monger (smell overload).
A sensory avoider becomes distressed, anxious and in general unhappy in these environments.
A sensory seeker needs more sensations to pay focused attention to tasks and to prevent fidgeting. These children tend to either rush to complete tasks or they can be distracted with poor work speed. Both of these tendencies cause poor end-results of the task at hand. They might also be overwhelmed with busy environments as explained above but will react by moving, by making noises, by finding it difficult to listen and impossible to pay focused attention.
A sensory seeker finds it difficult to sit still for periods of time.
Once you as a parent have identified the sensations that trigger feelings of being overwhelmed in your child, it is easier to make changes in the environment.
Qualities of a Sensory Diet for a Child with MILD tendencies of being an “Avoider”
A typical sensory diet for an avoider includes regular periods of time where this child can “escape” to an area or environment with low levels of sensations.
The child can use these periods of time to “wind down”, to relax and to prepare for the next activity. It depends on the child but it might be necessary to provide these opportunities 4 – 6 times per day.
Strategies to calm and to reduce/prevent sensory overload
- In general the following reduce anxiety and encourage calmness
- An area with little sensations such as a corner in a room with soft pillows, low lights, soft music, can be used as a place of comfort and “escape”
- Slow rhythmical movements
- Deep pressure on the body
- Soft music with a slow rhythm
- Dimmed lights
- Reduced smells and tastes
Qualities of a Sensory Diet for a Child with MILD tendencies of being a “Seeker”.
A typical sensory diet for a seeker includes regular periods of time where this child can “escape” to an area or environment with higher levels of sensations. This will be an area where the child can move, can use the big muscles of the body and can experience increased levels of sensations.
The child uses these times to “use excessive energy” to assist with the ability to sit still, to reduce fidgeting and to concentrate on the task at hand. It depends on the child but this can be implemented every 15 minutes during e.g. desk work or every 2 hours during the average day.
Strategies to provide the opportunity to move to prevent fidgeting and poor concentration
- In general these strategies will help the child to pay focused attention and to complete tasks.
- Jumps on the spot
- Uses hands to touch head and then bend down to touch toes, making sure that the head moves from upright to upside down
- Pushing, pulling and /or carrying heavy objects
- Rhythmical marching on the spot
- Deep pressure, e.g. weighted blanket or pillow
- Walking with fairly heavy back pack
- Fidget toys or doodling should be encouraged when the child has to sit still e.g. in the car, listening to a speech.
You can now experiment with these strategies.Contact CoordiKids or your local occupational therapist (specializing in sensory integration) to assist you.