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5 Things You Need to Know About A Sensory Diet

By , Fraser Senior Occupational Therapist Kendra Williams and Pam Dewey • sensory diet, what is a sensory diet, sensory processing, sensory processing difficulties, sensory processing sensitivities, sensory support, sensory needs, autism, ASD, autism support, occupational therapy, OT for kids • October 13, 2022

As a child, you probably learned that everyone has five senses — taste, smell, hear, touch and see. But we actually have eight senses, including proprioception, vestibular and interoception.

Proprioception is your sense of body awareness, which helps you realize where you are in relation to the things around you. Vestibular is your body’s sense of movement in response to gravity, or more simply, balance. Interoception is your internal sense of feeling hungry, tired, nervous or having your heart rate and breathing change.

The way people respond to the senses varies greatly. Some people with sensory processing difficulties are overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights. Others require intensive sensory input, like deep pressure on their bodies. People with autism often have sensory processing difficulties, but others also require specific sensory input.  

“Everyone has sensory needs, not just people with sensory processing difficulties. We meet these needs in different ways,” says Kendra Williams, Fraser senior occupational therapist and occupational therapy clinical mentor. “For example, I play with my hair a lot, and I like to have something in my mouth, like a beverage to drink or candy to chew on.”

What does a sensory diet do?

A sensory diet helps meet these sensory needs. The Autism Awareness Centre Inc. states that a sensory diet “is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs. This plan provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day.” In other words, a sensory diet can help with behaviors or reactions from too much or too little sensory input.

How can a sensory diet help?

Children and adults with sensory issues may have behavioral reactions or struggle with sensory experiences. Sensory diets can help with these behaviors or reactions:

  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Meltdowns
  • Biting
  • Difficulty interacting with others
  • Jumping off high surfaces
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty with textures, food or clothing

When do you use a sensory diet?

Williams says she only creates a sensory diet for a child, teen or adult, after she has gotten to know the individual and their family. It’s important to understand the individuals’ sensory needs and what sensory strategies will realistically work for a family or individual.

“Everyone’s lives are different. If I recommend a therapy swing, but the family lives in an apartment, that isn’t helpful or realistic. Likewise, if I recommend deep pressure massages 5 times a day, but the family is very busy, that also won’t help,” says Williams.

What are some sensory strategies that might be included?

People who need calming tactile input can try walking barefoot in the grass, playing in a sandbox, gardening or simply digging in the dirt.

For people who like to chew on things, there is chewy (food safe) jewelry, chewy food like fruit leather and raisins and crunchy food like baby carrots, pretzels, or apples.  

For people who need vestibular input, a yoga ball is a great sensory tool. It’s inexpensive, great for a small space and works for a variety of activities. You can bounce on it, roll on it, have someone apply pressure with it and of course, sit on it.

How do you create a sensory diet?

There are many sensory strategies online, but a sensory diet is only effective when it’s customized to the individual. That’s why it’s important to enlist the help of an occupational therapist (OT).

“There isn’t one magic tool that works for everyone. A fancy weighted blanket might not be the right fit for you or your child,” says Williams. “Every individual is so unique. As an OT works with a child in therapy, they learn about what makes them unique. Then we create an individualized sensory diet, addressing their needs and lifestyle. Even then, there might be some trial and error, but OTs know how to brainstorm, be creative and come up with solutions.”

A sensory diet is typically only a part of an individual’s treatment. It may occur in combination with communication strategies, emotional regulation strategies and other skills developed through therapy.

“When we develop a sensory diet, we give parents strategies to use at home and school. We want them to be confident enough to leave therapy,” says Williams. "That’s when you know what you’re doing has worked: when they’ve figured out their sensory needs, how to regulate those needs safely and make that regulation a part of their routine.”