For many children on the spectrum who receive Occupational Therapy, a Sensory Diet is often suggested to implement into a daily schedule. It’s a weird phrase for relatively complex theory, so let me break it down.
When you wake up in the morning, you have a routine. Maybe you hit snooze a few times (or like 1500 like my husband) and slowly drag yourself to the bathroom as a way to acclimate to the land of the living. After you’ve showered and dressed, you grab a cup of coffee and rush off to work, now in total alert mode (or OMG I’m gonna be late again mode like me). This ebb and flow of varying levels of activity, alertness, and concentration continue throughout the day. The morning shift you are focused and working in a great rhythm, and then after lunch you’re counting down the minutes to get out of work because you’ve hit that 3 o’clock slump.
You’ve figured out what you need throughout the day to keep your body going. And you can switch seamlessly between an activity that requires focus and taking a break to grab another cup of coffee or scroll through Facebook to have a moment of downtime.
Children on the spectrum have a really hard time transitioning and often don’t even know what they need. A child bouncing off the walls all day long isn’t necessarily hyperactive, he just doesn’t know how to self-regulate. Maybe he started dancing to his favorite song and that led to jumping and that led to crashing into the couch and now he’s so wound up he doesn’t know how to stop.
Alternatively, a child sitting at a table day dreaming instead of playing with the activity in front of him is also not properly regulating. Sitting quietly has brought is alert level down so low that he can’t even focus and just stares off into space.
A Sensory Diet can help keep those levels of alertness and restfulness moving throughout the day and help direct a child’s energy appropriately. For example if your child has a hard time concentrating at his activity table, try some physical activities first to bring their alert level up. Even eating a snack can help wake up their senses and bring them out of a brain fog. And if your child is super wound up before bedtime, try calming activities like a rice bin which will help organize their little bodies into a calmer state.
When my son and I first started Musical Munchkins, he was so excited he just ran around the room for the entire 45 minute session. Every single week. After discussing this situation with our OT, she realized his alert level was so high that he just couldn’t sit still. So the following week, before we left the house for class, we played with calming sensory activities (rice bin, play-doh, etc). These type of activities helped to organize his muscles and mind and got the “wiggles” out prior to class. Then at class he was able to participate and much more attentive.
I found a fabulous and free template for creating a sensory diet schedule at Your Kid’s Table. (scroll all the way to the bottom of the article to the gray header The Sensory Diet Template and click the “click here” link. You’ll be asked for your email and then the PDF will open.)
The schedule will take a bit of work to set up, and may require some periodic changes. Also check with your OT or the internet for amazing sensory ideas for your child. After awhile, you’ll find you won’t even need to look at your schedule because you’ll be able to determine what your child needs based on their alert level.
Keep in mind that sometimes asking a child to “Be Quiet”, “Sit Still”, or “Pay Attention” can be an impossible request. They don’t yet understand how to. A Sensory Diet will help them transition their energy throughout the day.
If you have any questions, I would be more than happy to help so please leave a comment below.
Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.
*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*