Getting the Most Power Out of a Sensory Diet

Any Internet search will reveal a countless number of activity suggestions for a sensory diet. Yet, what turns these suggested activities into an effective and precise activity regimen capable of influencing your client’s arousal level so that they can maintain their attention and stay organized throughout the day?

“Selecting an individually matched activity can be more powerful than picking ten predetermined activities”   Tweet: Selecting an individually matched activity can be more powerful than picking ten predetermined activities http://ctt.ec/B8rCk+

Developing a laundry list of activities for the child/family to complete at unspecified times in the day is not the answer. Keep in mind quality over quantity. Selecting one or two individually matched activities can be more powerful than picking ten activities from a predetermined list.

“We need to develop a sensory diet that consists of powerful ‘meat and potato’ techniques”   Tweet: We need to develop a sensory diet that consists of powerful “meat and potato” techniques http://ctt.ec/anY2T+

Imagine what you eat in a day. If we only consumed snacks with minimal nutritional value all day long, would we ever feel fully satisfied? No, we need to incorporate our “meat and potatoes” so to speak at several key points during the day and supplement with snacks. The same principle applies to designing a sensory diet. Developing a sensory diet that only consists of empty sensory snacks at random intervals throughout the day may leave your child feeling irritable, unmotivated, and generally out of sorts. Essentially, you need to develop a sensory diet that consists of powerful “meat and potato” techniques that support and organize posture, breath, and overall self-regulation.

These activities should support a dynamic, three-dimensional breath pattern and stimulate the deep core musculature.

The objective is to select and incorporate the ‘just right’ activities for each individual client. As a general principle, activities that tap into the postural core, as well as facilitate deeper breathing patterns may hold the key to creating the best activity routine. These activities should support a dynamic, three-dimensional breath pattern and stimulate the deep core musculature. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, especially the exhale, has the power to reset an overly activated nervous system; additionally it is the most essential component of deep core activation.

A therapist’s ability to select and tailor appropriate activities rests on two key clinical features: a) understanding the sensory systems and their unique contributions and b) therapist’s ability to assess the impact of activities on breath patterns and core activation. By considering these critical features, therapists will be better able to isolate powerful sensory diet activities.

When designing a sensory diet, keep these key principles in mind

When designing a sensory diet, keep these key principles in mind:

  1. A sensory diet is not just a list of activities.
  2. The type of sensation, intensity, quality of input, and time of implementation all matter to the overall success of the activity.
  3. Activities should facilitate activation of deeper breathing along with the core/postural musculature. This type of activation not only provides physical stability it ultimately supports one’s regulation of arousal, affect and self-regulation.
  4. Activities should be correctly matched to the individual; otherwise, the sensory input just drifts through the nervous system.
  5. Activities should support the intended functional outcomes. If they don’t, reconsider the aforementioned activity considerations.

When designing your client’s next sensory diet, ask yourself are these activities just “sensory snacks” or are they actually the “meat and potatoes”? Hope this helps you design a nutritious and delicious sensory diet.

Sheila Frick, OTR/L, in conversation with Julia Wilbarger, PhD, OTR/L

Interested in learning more about how core activation is central to a sensory diet? Read about our Performance, Precision and Power course here.

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2 Comments on: “Getting the Most Power Out of a Sensory Diet

  1. Thank you! It does concern me when I see clients have been given a “laundry list” handout from a therapist without any attempt at individualizing it. I love your “meat and potatoes” description.

  2. Totally agree. Parents and teachers are easily overwhelmed if given too much information that they need to wade through as part of a generic list of activities.
    It is often hard to say to a parent and teacher that you need to get to know the child first before you can recommend a bespoke sensory diet for that child, but I believe that this is best practice and provides the positive outcomes we need to make what we do matter. The information from sensory profiles are not enough, it is a trained clinician’s clinical reasoning that is refined when working with a child together with the functional goals defined by parents school and therapist, that really provides the cream for the pavlova.

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