What is a Sensory Diet in Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

If you have a little one with sensory issues, you know that exposing them to different environments can be challenging and uncomfortable. If a child experiences sensory issues they may be highly sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures (all of the above, or just a few). They may also have an atypically low sensitivity to sensory information. In either case, pediatric occupational therapy can be extremely beneficial. Sensory issues can be common for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorder.

Pediatric occupational therapy
Simply put, pediatric occupational therapy helps children improve skills that are used to complete daily occupations (or activities). These skills might include fine and gross motor skills and sensory integration.

Sensory diets
When you think of a diet, you likely imagine ‘low-carb,’ ‘gluten-free,’ ‘Paleo,’ or another fitness buzzword. You might not be familiar with a “sensory diet,” but if you have a child with sensory issues, a sensory diet may be just what they need. The first thing to know is that a sensory diet does not actually involve nutrition. Rather than changing the nutrition habits of your child, a sensory diet exposes your child to different sensory experiences to help them with sensory processing.

A sensory diet can target different senses and is easily customizable to fit a range of different abilities and needs. There is not one set sensory diet for all children. This is also a versatile occupational therapy tool, because the activities can be used at home with parents, in school with a teacher, or during designated therapy sessions with an occupational therapist.

Examples of sensory diet activities
Sensory diets can target different areas of sensory input, including touch/textures, proprioceptive, auditory, vision, smells, and taste.

Touch/texture: If a child experiences sensory issues with touch and texture, an example of a sensory diet activity might include brushing or joint compressions (to apply pressure).

Proprioceptive: If a child experiences problems with movement and proprioception, then activities such as hopscotch or jumping jacks can help build coordination and proprioception.

Auditory: Some children with sensory issues may be highly sensitive to sound. To help with these issues, an occupational therapist might suggest listening to calming instrumental music or a white noise machine.

Vision: Children with autism or sensory issues may be sensitive to visual sensory input. Exercises that might help include using sunglasses outdoors (to reduce the brightness of sunlight) or replacing fluorescent light bulbs with a type of bulb that produces a softer light.

Smells: A child who is highly sensitive to sensory input from smells might benefit from a variety of different essential oils or smelling different cooking spices.

Tastes: Children who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues may also be sensitive to different tastes. A sensory diet activity for taste sensitivity might include eating food with different textures.

Resources for sensory diets
There are many different resources available if you think a sensory diet is right for your child. Before starting to incorporate these strategies at home, you can consult your pediatric occupational therapist to discuss their thoughts on a sensory diet. Remember, you are the expert on your child, but the therapist is the expert on occupational therapy! They will be able to provide helpful recommendations for sensory diets. As there are so many different options for sensory diets, they will be able to tailor a plan that best targets the specific sensory issues of your child.

If you would like to see some examples of sensory diet exercises, there are many different resources you can use. We have included two below.


Sensory Diet Cards (can be found here on Amazon)

If your child could benefit from a sensory diet or pediatric occupational therapy, Chicago Occupational Therapy provides pediatric occupational therapy in Chicago (and surrounding suburbs), as well as many other services.

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