Sensory Diets

by Bonnie Hanschu, OTR, and Myania Moses, OT

Sensory DietsWhat helps you get started in the morning?  Hot shower?  Cold shower?  Your regular exercise routine or morning run?  Quiet time? Music?  All these activities provide sensory stimulation to the nervous system in the same way that food provides nourishment to the body.

Some sensory input such as clapping is like a snack, low intensity and short duration.  Swinging is more like a meal, higher in intensity and longer lasting.  A good sensory diet provides the combination of input needed for peak performance from the time we wake up until we go to bed.

Sensation stimulates a primitive part of the brain, known as the brain stem, which responds to touch, movement, and muscle action by releasing chemicals that wake us up or calm us down.

Everything we do, think, or feel is possible because of the automatic modulating activity of the brain stem to keep us at an appropriate level of arousal.  A varied sensory diet helps us achieve all the different brain states we experience in a typical day, e.g., happy but focused, relaxed but serious, alert and ready to act.

Normally, the brain stem adjusts the chemistry automatically so we keep up with the flow of our experience.  When the chemistry falls behind, we may feel sluggish or too revved.  We might have trouble concentrating or notice irrelevant things, like the feel of our clothing or outside noises, when we are inside trying to read.  Somehow we’re “off.”  We may feel out-of-sync or look that way to others.

When this happens, we need to so something physical:  stand up, stretch, or move around. Physical activities enrich our sensory input, enabling our brain stems to activate more effective chemical combinations for what we are experiencing.

With good modulation, children can be automatically appropriate in the degree and timing of their responses.  Compromised sensory processing makes it hard to achieve and maintain an appropriate arousal level. There’s usually too little or too much arousal to fit the situation.

No matter how hard children with this problem try, they can’t keep pace with changes, transitions, interruptions, or lots of things going on at the same time.  Modulation difficulties interfere with attention and ability to learn and sometimes escalate to the point where children completely lose control.

It helps when adults who care for children are mindful of the sensory demands associated with different experiences and respect the sensory preferences and idiosyncrasies of individual children.  Professionals and parents who understand how sensation influences brain efficiency can tweak daily routines to provide a varied and appetizing sensory diet.

Essential ingredients of a rich sensory diet are heavy work, physical activity, muscle exertion, movement, and firm comforting touch.

Use existing opportunities to be physical: walk, bend, stretch, lift, carry, push, or pull.

Modify routine activities: add weight, move things out of reach, go the longer way over uneven terrain, put pressure on shoulders to compress down over the vertebrae 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 chalkboard instead of paper.

Create new opportunities: take breaks for moving, pushing, pulling; wrap ace bandages around limbs for extra pressure touch, do isometric exercises and chair push-ups, do Brain Gym before challenging activities, sit quietly to settle down after excitement.

Add sensation to a non-sensory activity:  review academics while swinging or balancing on a T stool, answer questions while being pushed or pulled, sit on a vibrating pad or slightly inflated ball while reading or taking a test.

A rich sensory diet can make a big difference in how we experience and relate to our world.  After a balanced “meal” of sensation we feel replenished and settled. At the same time we feel organized, empowered and ready to go. We have our bearings, and feel safe and comfortable, and we’re able to do what we want to do.

Have you had the right sensory diet today?  What about the children you know?

For more information read The Out-of-Sync Child, and Moving With a Purpose.