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The SPD Companion, Issue #005 -- Creating A Sensory Diet
July 06, 2006

Welcome to the 5th edition of the SPD Companion Newsletter!

As promised in my last newsletter, I would like to get into more specifics about SENSORY DIETS. Here are the 5 areas I would like to address today...

1. Defining and understanding what a sensory diet is.

2. Signs of high, low, and optimal arousal.

3. How and what to observe in your child before planning his/her diet (the KEY ingredients).

4. How to plan your child's INDIVIDUAL sensory diet.

5. And, the critical importance of understanding the diet and daily implementation.

What Is A Sensory Diet?

Before I get into my thoughts, please make sure you have read Michelle Morris's article, Creating A Home Sensory Diet (just click on the title or copy and paste the url if the title is not clickable). She has beautifully explained the ideas behind sensory diets and given wonderful insight and examples as to how best to implement one for your child...all from first hand experience!

To continue defining and understanding WHAT a sensory diet is, I will refer you to the sensory diet description I have had on my site for some time now. Just in case you haven't read it or would like to read it again as a refresher, here are the basics:

No, it's not Atkins, South Beach or Slim Fast... Despite what you may have thought, this actually has nothing to do with food, fat, sugar, carbs or counting calories! A sensory diet is, rather, a "diet" of activities and sensory input for your body and neurological system.

You may already have heard of it, had it recommended for your child, or be saying, HUH? For the latter group, let me briefly explain...

Just the same way your body needs food evenly spaced throughout the day, so does your body need activities to keep it's arousal level optimal.

Sensory diets are usually developed for individuals who need a large amount of sensory input throughout the day, however, they can be used in other ways as well. Perhaps the lethargic, disengaged, or fearful individual needs to be "woken" up throughout the day and exposed to input they may not normally receive. Then a sensory diet may be appropriate for them too.

Doctors have to figure out one's metabolism, amount of food, calories, type of food, and frequency to eat based on an individual's needs and body to keep the body functioning at it's optimal level. Someone trying to keep blood sugar levels regulated and 100 lbs overweight will eat differently than someone weighing 90 lbs who is dealing with anorexia.

Similarly, Occupational Therapists also need to figure out the amount, type, and frequency of activities one needs to function at it's optimal level. Same idea, just different "food".

Warning: Just as any diet should be prescribed and followed under the care and supervision of a doctor, so also the sensory diet needs to be "prescribed" and followed under the care and supervision of an Occupational Therapist. It requires skill, art, knowledge, and experience.

***It is important to understand one other basic concept. Whether we are talking about a sensory diet for a child, teenager, or adult, the general ideas and approach are the same. All you need to do is apply the same methods, using the same strategy, but with different sensory activities that are individualized and age appropriate. Sensory diets work, whether you are 9 months or 99 years old! So, although I often refer to children, the same can be said for adults.

High, Low, And Optimum Arousal Levels

Now, let's get more specific!

When creating a sensory diet, we are looking to bring high OR low arousal levels to an optimal arousal level. This will in turn increase functioning, learning, and skill building within the best environment possible.

OUR goal is to help our child (or ourselves) find activities that, in themselves and/or with their timing, will bring an individual to that optimal state of arousal. It is about meeting their sensory needs throughout the day, to keep them calm, focused, and alert enough to optimally function.

What Does HIGH AROUSAL Look Like?

  • can't sit still, "hyper"
  • distractible
  • talks fast, loud, a lot
  • can't calm self down for sleep
  • "intense" or highly sensitive
  • difficulty with transitions, stress, or changes in routine

  • What Does LOW AROUSAL Look Like?

  • hard to get going, lethargic
  • appears to lack interest
  • avoids physical activity
  • limited facial expressions
  • hard to wake up in the morning or after a nap
  • moves very slow

  • What Does OPTIMAL AROUSAL Look Like?

  • able to focus and explore tasks, activities, and environments
  • able to concentrate
  • has appropriate and meaningful interactions with people and environment
  • maintains good eye contact
  • can adapt to stressful situations and changes in routines
  • has self-control

  • Obviously arousal states that are high or low are not optimally effective for accomplishing daily tasks and functional activities that include the basics of work, rest, and play. We NEED to help our children move into an optimal state of arousal for a greater percentage of the day so they can learn, develop appropriately, and function at their best.

    The Observations

    "HOW do we do this", you ask? being VERY careful observers!!

    First, we must start by paying attention to, and keeping a journal on; what stimulation, demands, and environments excite, calm, over arouse, and/or allows our children (or you) to best focus, learn, work, rest, or play.

    Second, we pay attention to which stimulation, demands, or environments are getting in the way, and which ones are helpful.

    Third, we ask all kinds of questions...

    ... "What do we need to do to PREPARE this child (neurologically, physically, verbally, emotionally) prior to certain activities, demands, or environments"?

    ... "What modifications or accommodations do we need to do to help this child successfully get through particular activities or daily routines?"

    ... "What are his/her activities or tasks that cause the most difficulty?"

    ... "What sets him/her 'off' into disruptive or unfocused behaviors?"

    ... "What do we do to 'wake up' the child's nervous system?"

    ... "What do we do to calm him/her down when over aroused?"

    ... "What are the child's best times of day? Their worst times?"

    Your Occupational Therapist will help you determine these answers, but any input YOU have for them regarding these questions will be extremely helpful. For example, things you have tried, things that have worked, have not worked, things you have noticed, patterns your child exhibits, etc.

    With all of these questions in mind (and so many more), we must then set out to put our observations in writing. Reality is often different and more noticeable on paper! Your OT will NEED the information I will be presenting , if they are going to help you set up a specific and effective sensory diet for you or your child.

    Below you will find a form that you can copy and paste into your own word processing program and fill out. These observations will be important in the creation of your child's sensory diet. It won't be hard to create, as long as there is enough background information. We NEED parental input on this! So, observe and write down as much information as you possible can using the form below.

    (Whether you are a parent or an OT, you can use this form as a way of collecting and documenting a thorough history.)



    1. Sensory Experience/Activity Avoided Or Distressed By:

    2. Where:

    3. When:

    4. For How Long:

    5. How Did It Interfere With Function; i.e. "work"(any learning or developmental task), rest, or play:

    6. How/Why Did The Child Stop:

    7. How Long Did It Take The Child To "Recover":


    8. Sensory Experience/Activity Sought Out:

    9. Where:

    10. When:

    11. How Long:

    12. Child's Reaction During Activity:

    13. How/Why Did Child Stop Activity:

    14.. Child's Reaction/Behavior After Activity:

    15. How Did It Interfere With Function (i.e., "work", rest, or play)


    16. List any other fine motor or gross motor activities your child has difficulty performing:

    17. What reactions/behaviors does child exhibit when attempting or during task/activity that is difficult:

    18. Does your child have difficulty with transitions (going from one activity to another)?
    __Yes __No __Sometimes Especially when...

    19. What is your child's favorite activity? What is their least favorite activity?

    20. What demand, environment, or activity causes the most distress or an increase in negative behaviors?

    21. What is most successful in calming or alerting YOUR child when he/she needs help:

    22. Other comments/observations/questions:

    Copyright 2006


    After filling out as much as you can, you will want to bring this information to your Occupational Therapist. All sensory diets should be made in collaboration an OT and parental input. It should be SPECIFIC and INDIVIDUALIZED for YOUR child, and should include activities to be done on a daily basis.

    The Plan

    Here are some of the questions/answers an OT should provide based on your thorough "data". Keep these in mind as you fill out your observations. Also, use the questions below to try different things and experiment with different sensory input to get as much variety and information as possible.

    Sensory Seekers:

    Sensory Activity Sought:

    What Sensation Is He/She Looking For; Does He/She Get:

    Alternate or Similar Activity That Can Be Used To Provide Similar Input:

    What Can He/She Do At Home Or School To Give Them This Input:


    Sensory Avoiders:

    Sensory Activity Avoided:

    What Sensation Are They Avoiding:

    What Preparation Will Help The Child Tolerate This Input:

    Should It / Could It Be Replaced With Something Else? If So, What:

    What Accomodations And/Or Modifications Could Be Used At Home Or School:

    With answers to these questions understood, the Occupational Therapist will/should help set all the specific, individualized ingredients for your child's sensory diet. They will include specific instructions about:

    1. A.M. nervous system preparation

    2. Specific activities needed throughout the day, and how often they should be done. (And YOU should understand the purpose of each activity ...if you are not clear about it, ASK!)

    3. Activities that need to be avoided or adapted on a regular basis at home or school to help the child succeed and/or increase function.

    4. P.M. nervous system preparation

    Consistancy And Making It Work!


    I can't emphasize enough, results are in direct proportion to how much the diet is followed. Just the same as a "food diet"... the more you follow it, the better your weight loss will be.

    Here, the more you follow the sensory diet, the more focused, energized, calm, alert, and/or organized your child will be. Eventually, your child will not even need "the diet"...they will have learned how to "self-regulate". Additionally, their nervous system should have changed enough that they will be able to tolerate input, need less input, and/or remain calm and focused enough to develop necessary developmental skills. THIS is the goal! (Again, the diet comparison...your metabolism adjusts, your need for high sugar, high fat foods decreases, your stomach shrinks and doesn't need as much, and your body has a new set point!)

    Creating and following a sensory diet really ISN'T as complicated as it may seem. Most of this is just gathering the foundational history so it can be created well, by you and your OT. The bottom line is, as one friend said, "you just have to start thinking sensory".

    Our kids are telling us what they need! All we have to do is pay attention to their signals...

  • What sensory input are they seeking or avoiding? Tactile? Proprioceptive? Vestibular? etc.
  • What are they doing to get this input?
  • When do they need more? When do they need less?
  • What alerts them? What calms them?
  • What ingredients do they need to get a balanced diet? (Think of the activities as nutrition for their nervous system.)
  • Working with your OT, and reading as much as you WILL understand more than you ever thought possible. Just take a step back and OBSERVE. You'll be amazed at the difference in your child IF YOU CREATE IT AND FOLLOW IT EVERY DAY!

    If you want to understand HOW MUCH of a difference sensory diets and therapy can make just read Like Night And Day...We Found Hope! You too will understand and find hope with a sensory diet. You will embrace the differences in your child, and the relief in your family's life!

    Remember, specific activity suggestions can be found in the following places:

    SPD Companion Issue #004- Adolescent And Adult SPD

    The Sensory Processing Disorder Store (activities by category)

    Sensory Integration Activities

    Sensory Integration Equipment (also broken down by category)

    Sensory Integration Products

    Heavy Work Activities

    Here's to YOU finding YOUR "like night and day" experiences! PLEASE, help yourself and/or your child! They are crying out for exactly what they need.

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