What is a sensory diet?
For many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), sensory processing can be challenging. The literature has reported that approximately 42% to 88% of children with ASD have sensory motor integration dysfunction. This sensory processing disorder impacts how the brain perceives sensory information and how the person responds to that information. The way the brain processes sensory information plays a crucial role in regulating behavior and motor function, which means that children with autism and sensory-motor integration dysfunction may react negatively to certain sensory stimuli.
Behavior to these stimuli can be a cause for concern for many parents and caregivers. It is in this context that occupational therapists Wilbarger and Wilbarger introduced what is known as a sensory diet in 1991. But what is a sensory diet? This plan, custom-designed by therapists, addresses clients’ sensory input through physical activities and adaptations aimed at meeting their sensory needs. The purpose is to keep people focused and organized throughout the day, avoiding feelings of overload and overwhelm and promoting calm, peacefulness, and appropriate energy levels.
With this blog from ABA Centers of Florida, we seek to provide you with a comprehensive guide to sensory diet, featuring helpful activities and strategies that you can incorporate into the routine of your child with autism. The goal is to help them manage their sensory inputs and stay more regulated throughout the day.
How does the Sensory Diet Work?
A sensory diet aims to meet the sensory needs of the nervous system, either by preventing sensory and emotional overload or by acting as a method of recovery once the individual has reached a state of stress.
It is essential to have a comprehensive comprehension of the child’s sensory profile to develop a sensory diet plan. Additionally, it’s crucial to explore activities that promote relaxation and assist in regulating their emotional and physical state. Regularly engaging children in sensory experiences can be helpful in maintaining focus, attention, and interaction and promoting regulation when they feel overwhelmed or out of control, thus reducing anxiety levels.
An occupational therapist (OT) is responsible for designing a sensory diet and creating a personalized plan or program. Afterward, parents and caregivers can carry out the recommended activities at home, while educators or teaching assistants can use them in the school environment. Seeking the advice of an OT with expertise in sensory processing problems is essential, as identifying whether the child is over- or under-reacting at specific times can be challenging. The trained OT can adjust sensory input according to the child’s individual needs and provide appropriate challenges to move toward a balanced state.
Understanding Sensory Processing and Sensory Motor Integration Dysfunction
Sensory Motor Integration Dysfunction, also known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), involves a disturbance in the way the brain processes sensory information. Autism Parenting Magazine reports that SPD may affect around 5% to 16% of school-aged children. However, children with autism are significantly more likely to have this dysfunction, as it is a common feature of autism. Although not all children with sensory processing disorder have autism, many children with ASD face challenges related to sensory processing.
Children with autism and SPD may exhibit extreme sensitivity to how certain things feel, look, or sound. In addition, they may be prone to distractions and have deficits in fine motor skills.
Sensory processing involves eight components, encompassing the five senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch, along with three additional elements. These are vestibular function, which refers to the collaboration between the inner ear and the brain to control eye movement, body balance, and awareness of one’s own body in relation to other objects; proprioception, sometimes referred to as the “sixth and seventh senses,” which involves understanding of one’s body movement or position; and interoception, which is the perception of what is happening within one’s own body, such as feeling hot or cold, being thirsty or hungry, or the body’s response to certain feelings and emotions.
In stimulus processing, people can experience two forms of response. Children exhibit hypersensitivity when they have a low tolerance to pain and experience coordination problems, and lights, sounds, textures, and tastes can stimulate them easily. On the other hand, hyposensitivity manifests when a child does not receive sufficient sensory stimulation, presenting high tolerance to pain, behaviors such as bumping into walls or objects, and the need to put objects in the mouth and touch them.
The University of Connecticut sheds light on the DSM-5’s decision not to classify sensory processing as a disorder despite its inclusion in other diagnostic classification guidelines.
How Do You Recognize Your Child’s Sensory Profile?
Although, ideally, a professional should handle this task, you can find some helpful resources for gathering information about your child’s sensory profile. You can find observational checklists online that will provide valuable data to share with your child’s sensory diet therapist. One example is the sensory checklist offered by Sensorysmarts, which includes six components of sensory processing.
Creating a Sensory Diet for Autism
Therapists design activities within a sensory diet for autism to address specific sensory systems, adapting to each individual’s age and needs. Below are examples of activities you can integrate into your sensory diet plan:
Within the sense of touch, sensory diet activities may involve textures, temperature, or vibration. Examples include:
- Drawing in the sand
- Massaging hands
- Playing with play dough or balls
- Playing with foam or soap
Proprioception (body sense):
For proprioception-related activities on a sensory diet, consider actions that involve lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy objects. Examples include:
- Pushing a cart or car
- Pulling a cart with objects
- Carrying a backpack
- Playing hopscotch
- Lifting weights
- Push-ups against a wall
- Wearing a weighted vest
Vestibular (sense of movement):
Generates sensations of movement in a sensory diet through activities that involve turning or swinging. Examples are:
- Playing on swings
- Rocking in a hammock
- Spinning in a sit and spin
- Jumping rope
Within the auditory system, it includes activities to regain calm and organize information. Examples are:
- Listening to music, nature sounds, or running water
- Using noise-canceling headphones
- Playing a musical instrument
To reduce visual stimulation in a sensory diet, consider activities such as:
- Organizing areas and keeping them free of clutter
- Storing objects in boxes
- Avoid using fluorescent lighting
- Use neutral colors for decorating
Taste and smell:
In a sensory diet, incorporate certain smells and tastes to stimulate or soothe. Examples include:
- Calming scents such as lavender, jasmine, and rose
- Alarming smells, such as peppermint or citrus
- Using odorless products, such as detergents or shampoos
- Experimenting with strong flavors
- Involving children in food preparation
- Include crunchy and chewy foods
- Offering foods that can be sucked or licked, such as popsicles or drinks with straws
ABA Centers of Florida and Autism Therapy
A sensory diet represents an invaluable tool in addressing the sensory needs of children with sensory motor integration dysfunction and autism. However, we recognize that comprehensive care is critical to ensure the progress and happiness of our children on the spectrum.
At ABA Centers of Florida, we dedicate ourselves to providing comprehensive service to meet the needs of neurodiverse families in Doral, Miramar, Port Saint Lucie, Tampa, Orlando, Boca Raton, Melbourne, Davenport, Kissimmee, and Bradenton. Our ABA therapy, available in both clinical and home settings, stands out as the gold standard in autism care.
A group delivers our ABA therapy at ABA Centers of Florida of certified professionals and autism care experts. BCBAs and RBTs understand the sensory challenges that children with ASD may face and implement therapy plans that approach these issues. When designing a therapy plan, they include sensory diet activities that benefit your child by helping them regulate their behavior and maintain their well-being.
To start ABA therapy or to resolve any autism-related questions, we invite you to call us at (772) 773-1975 or contact us online. At ABA Centers of Florida, we help your children adapt to their environment through understanding, compassion, and professionalism.