Sensory Diets are a way to support people who struggle with sensory challenges. In my private practice with children and in my parent coaching sessions we develop an individualized set of activities that children with sensory processing disorder, find helpful. Sensory diets are often recommended for people with sensory challenges and there is a wealth of information about implementing sensory diets available on the internet. Lyndsey Biel, OTR/L and author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child”, outlines some specifics about sensory diets here . There are now apps and online tools designed to help people implement sensory diets and occupational therapists repeatedly assign an array of activities and toys to help children get the sensory input they need all day at home and school. But implementing sensory diets can feel tedious and to parents, just starting out in their sensory journey, it can be daunting. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
DON’T QUIT – Sensory strategies may or may not work immediately. The older a person is, the longer it can take for their body to make changes that last. Sensory challenges are all about how the nervous system is working and if patterns of responding have been in place for a long time, the nervous system needs lots and lots of repetition to learn new patterns. Sticking with things that feel good and have positive results, means a person is more likely to make changes that last! (side note: never stick with a strategy that has negative outcomes. Talk to an occupational therapist if something just isn’t working or you have questions about whether it is working or not). Sensory strategies don’t work all the time and for some added support when they don’t, look over this list, but persevere!
USE YOURSELF WISELY – Individuals who are around a person experiencing sensory challenges can be very influential in increasing or decreasing sensory symptoms. This concept is known as “co-regulation”. See one of my posts for parents, on the topic of co-regulation. If you add fuel to a fire it blazes, therefore the best input for a person in the midst of sensory upset is often nothing at all. Removing input by being quiet/talking less, looking away, turning away, and/or helping the person to leave the overstimulating situation, are a few things a caregiver or significant other can do to help. Sometimes offering deep pressure in the form of a hug, a soft heavy blanket, or a quiet space to sit against a wall, can be comforting and remove the sensation of being overstimulated. You may be the best sensory tool you have.
HAVE HEART – trust your intuition and your heart about what a person needs, not what they need to learn. Parents know their child best and following the child’s lead often leads to the solutions they need. Pay attention to what they like. It is highly plausible they like that activity, toy, person, place etc. because it feels good to be around them. Children with sensory challenges, often don’t feel good much of the time, so giving them more of what feels good (when realistic to do so) means they may feel in control and therefore act more in control for a larger majority of the time.
BREATHE – taking deep breaths is one of the best things you can do when faced with challenging sensory symptoms. Not only does this help with co-regulation and model self-calming for the person who is challenged, it allows more time for you to think. Lisa McCrohan, MA, LCSW-C, RYT and Psychotherapist writes beautifully about that “sacred pause” that helps us figure out the next best step.
BE FLEXIBLE – a flexible sensory diet is the best sensory diet. No family is able to adhere to exact times and order of activities 100% of the time. By allowing some wiggle room into the routine and by modeling flexibility and self-compassion, not only will you be able to cope better with the ebbs and flows of living with a child who has sensory challenges, but you are modeling for them how to deal with changes in routine and transitions and how to go easy on yourself. It is wise to have back-up strategies or an exit plan when you know you are going into a potentially challenging situation, but choosing your battles (like letting your child go barefoot if its safe to do so, or allowing them to get their favorite chicken nuggets while out even, though that’s all they’ve eaten in the past many months), may help to prevent further upset and escalation and help everyone recover from other stressful situations that really do matter (such as the bus ride home from school, a chaotic work environment, or being able to fall asleep).
By keeping in mind the above tips, parents, caregivers, and family members may be more equipped to implement sensory diet strategies with our loved ones who have sensory challenges. Be kind to yourself, go easy and remember to breathe! Life’s too short to worry about chicken nuggets…all of the time!