Sensory Diet

A sensory diet can help many individuals with autism, whose sensory processing is compromised, because they may find it hard to achieve and maintain an appropriate arousal level.

In addition, a sensory diet can help those with Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as those with ADD/ADHD and learning disabilities; sensory issues may be playing a large, undetected role in these disorders.

Children with these disorders may move from sensory-seeking to sensory-avoidance behaviors, which can be problematic for authority figures even though they serve a purpose for the individual.

But what if kids with autism were given opportunities to rock, touch, move, and jump? Maybe they would be satiated and not act out inappropriately.

What Is a Sensory Diet?

This is the stance taken by many occupational therapists who show parents how to use a sensory diet. Just as a nutritionist recommends certain foods and supplements, the occupational therapist may recommend readily available opportunities to be physical, and supplements them with a prescription of the “just right” combination of sensory activities for a particular child.

Essential ingredients of a rich sensory diet are:

  • Heavy work
  • Physical activity
  • Muscle exertion
  • Movement
  • Firm, comforting touch

A good sensory diet is food for the nervous system and includes activities such as swinging, climbing, digging, and molding play dough. Including vestibular stimulation activities as part of the daily diet for a child with these disorders can be extremely powerful.

Working against gravity on suspended equipment could result in secondary gains in the crucial areas of digestion, visual function (including eye contact), communication, and socialization.

Incorporating a Sensory Diet

Here are some ways to give kids of all ages and abilities more sensory experiences throughout the day:

Modify Routine Activities

  • Add weight
  • Move things out of reach
  • Go the longer way over uneven terrain
  • Put pressure on shoulders to activate neck receptors for proprioception while walking
  • Give tighter hugs

Modify Objects to Increase Sensory Demands

  • Provide obstacles to climb over, crawl under, or walk around
  • Make door catches tighter so one has to pull or push harder
  • Use objects of differing sizes and weights to require frequent readjustment of exertion
  • Offer larger versions of tasks, such as writing on a chalkboard instead of paper

Create New Opportunities

  • Take breaks for moving, pushing, or pulling
  • Wrap ace bandages around limbs for extra touch pressure
  • Do isometric exercises and chair push-ups
  • Do Brain Gym® before challenging activities
  • Sit quietly to settle down after excitement, while hugging knees and taking deep breaths

Add Sensation to a Non-Sensory Activity

  • Review academics while swinging or while balancing on a T-stool
  • Answer questions while pushing or pulling
  • Sit on a vibrating pad or slightly inflated ball while reading or taking a test

Create a Sensory Room

For many kids with sensory disorders, the world feels just too loud and too bright; they need a refuge to which they can escape and get their balanced diet of sensory stimuli. Several companies now offer free design services for schools and families to create rooms that can be customized to individuals’ unique sensory needs. Experia USA offers equipment such as:

  • Bubble tubes
  • Fiber optics
  • Sound boards
  • Mirrors
  • Interactive microphones
  • Equipment for developing:
    • Vocalization
    • Gross motor skills
    • Color recognition
    • Tracking
    • Calming

Their products include sensory bathrooms, bedrooms and even sensory white rooms.

Environmental Changes That Enhance Sensory Processing

Many modifications of the classroom environment will enhance the ability of all students. Consider the following:

Ensure Quality Lighting

Natural light is best; full spectrum bulbs help. Fluorescent lighting is the least desirable.

Decrease Visual “Busyness” of Room and Written Work

For students with autism, avoid mobiles, venetian blinds, wallpaper, and clutter; they are all distractors. Make sure photocopied materials are fully legible.

Provide Seating Options

Some kids do better on special cushions and beanbag chairs than on hard, ill-fitting, unforgiving wooden chairs. Make sure that the table or desk is not too high or low, so that both feet fully touch the floor and the child’s lap is at a right angle.

Allow Breaks

When children can move around, they also have the opportunity to rest their eyes.


A rich sensory diet can make a big difference in how everyone experiences and relates to the world. A balanced “meal” of sensation could leave students with sensory needs feeling replenished, settled, organized and empowered.

Sources & References

Mumford R. Improving Visual Efficiency with Selected Lighting. JOVD, 2002, 33:3.