By Michaela Parker, MOTR/L | Intermountain Occupational Therapist
Just as your child needs food throughout the course of the day, he or she needs sensory input spread out over the whole day as well. A “sensory diet” is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. In the same way that you tap your foot or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, children need to engage in stabilizing, focusing activities, too. Children with mild to severe sensory issues can all benefit from a personalized sensory diet. A sensory diet should be customized for an individual child, but usually, the plan includes what’s to be done during the morning and bedtime routines, meals, and major transitions throughout the day. This is built into his routine, which allows for sensory “snacks” throughout the day that keep him feeling regulated and content in his body. Sensory snacks can including anything from hand clapping to five minutes in a quiet space with low lighting.
Over the years, I have heard parents share what does and doesn’t work for their kids. An example: Six-year-old John is always on the move. He loves to swing, spin, and will engage in rough play whenever possible. But what he does not love is loose fitting clothing, noisy environments, and bright lights. In fact, those situations will likely send John into unsoothable tantrums and a ruined day. His teacher is concerned as he seems unable to appropriately play with peers at school, and cannot function in the cafeteria without covering his ears. How do we find what works for John? How do we help him feel comfortable in everyday life activities?
John has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a child whose nervous system is causing him to be hyperactive needs more calming input, while the child who is more underactive or sluggish needs more stimulation. More than likely, he needs different kinds of sensory input in different situations, like we all do. Before he goes outside for recess, John’s teacher discovered that if she allows him five minutes of “heavy work,” such as wall push-ups, stacking chairs, or carrying books for her, he appears more regulated and less likely to play aggressively with his peers. Heavy work provides deep, proprioceptive input to John’s body which results in a calmer state of being. In other words, it works much like a good hug! And during lunch time, he is now given the option to wear ear buds discreetly connected to his iPod (kept in his pocket) to mute the background noise that caused him anxiety each day.
In these kinds of cases, an occupational therapist (OT) can use his/her advanced training and evaluation skills to develop a good, custom sensory diet for a child with sensory processing difficulties. These difficulties can present themselves as problems with behavior, but it is important to address what is triggering the behavior. You know how hard it is to reason with a child in the midst of a tantrum. You also can’t reason with a highly anxious, sensory defensive child until his anxiety subsides. An OT can provide techniques such as slow breathing, deep pressure, affirmations, (“I am feeling calmer. I’m okay.”), and visualizations to deal with the psychological response. In this way, you teach your child self-regulation skills. The goal is for the child to feel focused and alert throughout the day, experience good self-regulation of mood and energy, and demonstrate smooth transitions from one activity to another.
Occupational therapy practice is designed to promote health and wellness so the client can lead a more independent and meaningful life. In our work at Intermountain, occupational therapists address a variety of skill sets that are important for children to have in everyday life. A few examples include fine motor coordination and dexterity for academic work, social skills necessary for positive relationships, and sensory processing awareness in order to engage with world without fear or hesitation. This program is offered to address the need for more holistic treatment, in the family’s home environment.
Through collaboration, observation, and continual conversations, caregivers and therapists can discover what works for their children. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with families on this level and provide successful solutions for a healthy community. At Intermountain, growing in service is integrated into our work daily.
*Parker is a pediatric occupational therapist at Intermountain and works with Sara Schweitzer, Occupational Therapist and Lisa Sommers, Occupational Therapy Assistant, in the Intermountain Community Services Clinic at 3240 Dredge Drive.