In 1991, occupation therapists Wilbarger and Wilbarger created something called a sensory diet, which was a personalized plan of physical activities as well as accommodations, designed for the person who was challenged with special sensory needs. It was intended to help the person with specific sensory input they required to remain focused and organized throughout the day and during routine activities.
Many people with autism spectrum disorder quickly feel overwhelmed and overcome with sounds, scents or tastes, and need to engage in an activity that provides them a sense of calm. They may have outbursts or need to exert physical energy to get them back to that calmer place, while others might be sluggish, even lethargic, and need to perform activities that get back up and feeling more alert.
A sensory diet is intended to prevent emotional overload that might be the result of sensory overwhelm; the sensory diet is meant to meet the nervous system’s sensory needs. It can even be used as a recovery tool.
If, for example, you determine that your child would benefit from a sensory diet, the first step is understanding your child’s sensory profile, and then listing the activities that help them feel calm. This way, regulation becomes less of a challenge when your child feels overwhelmed and out of control – you’ll already know what sensory experiences bring your child that sense of peace.
When engaging sensory experiences are included in your child’s regular schedule, they’ll be more capable of focus, improved interaction and better attentiveness. Remember that kid with autism might feel really anxious when they don’t feel in control of a situation, so by introducing pleasant sensory experiences, your child’s anxiety may decrease significantly, because they feel more in control and comfortable of their environment.
When a sensory diet is designed, parents, teachers, caregivers and loved ones can utilize those tailored activities at work and at play. Many experts do suggest consulting with a sensory diet specialist because parents and caregivers may find it difficult at first to assess sensory processing issues; they may not recognize when a child is under- or overreactive or may not know how to meet them where they are and provide just the correct activities to get them back into a state of calm.
Once you meet with a therapist who specializes in a sensory diet, you may be introduced to some of the following activities, which address specific sensory systems, and which may be personalized depending on your child’s age and abilities.
Proprioceptive input is potentially achieved through activities like pulling, pushing or lifting. Activities may include
- Carrying a bag
- Pushing a grocery cart
- Pulling a small wagon or mini trailer filled with toys
- Lifting weights
- Wearing a weighted vest or walking around with a weighted blanket
- Push-ups against the wall or on the floor
Vestibular input, or sense of movement, is achieved by movement. Some activities may include
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Swinging on a swing set
- Jumping jacks
Tactile sense speaks to touch, temperature, pressure, texture, pain, and vibration. A way to play with the tactile sense is by
- Playing in a sandbox
- Getting a foot massage
- Playing with squeeze balls or fidget toys
- Messy play with bubbles, soap or putty
Auditory input is how we listen as well as what we hear. There are several ways to calm and organize auditory input, and they include
- Listening or playing music
- Nature sounds
- Listening to water running
- Using noise dampeners, like headphones
Sometimes, bright colors can be jarring. Busy patterns can be irritating. In other words, some things we see can be too visually stimulating, so to minimize that, we can do the following
- Keep walls painted in neutral, soft shades
- Choose iridescent lights instead of fluorescent
- Select warm light instead of brilliant white
- Keep rooms clutter free and tidy
- Stay organized by keeping things in bins and boxes
Certain smells can either stimulate a person or calm them. Some can even send a person into sensory overload. Some of the things to introduce to prevent this include
- Keep areas fragrance free if at all possible
- If scents must be used, test out scents known to calm, like lavender or vanilla
- Test out alerting scents (fragrances used to wake up!) like peppermint or citrus
Taste input is definitely influenced by a sense of smell, but oral sensory processing includes the tactile sense too. Think about the following
- If your child likes chewing, introduce chewable toys or chewable foods
- Offer crunchy foods like popcorn, apples, raw vegetables or pretzels
- Minimize the number of strong, unfamiliar flavors you put on the table in one sitting
- Have your child involved in cooking prep so they might be influenced or encouraged to try new foods