My experience working with Sensory Diets : What are they and How can you use one?

Before I get started with this blog, I wanted to link below the blog that I read that inspired the discussion of sensory diets on my blog. Please take a moment to read it, as the writer, Nikita, shares about Wilbarger’s sensory diet program and how the writer uses sensory diets (which I love because I share a lot of the similar experiences and ideas with her!) Go give her a like on her blog and then come check out my experience 🙂

Contrary to what it may sound like, a sensory diet doesn’t have to do with eating.  The term “sensory diet” was coined by Patricia Wilbarger, MA, OTR. It’s a program of specific sensory activities put into a schedule according to a child’s individual sensory needs. According to Wilbarger, sensory diets should include: A schedule of…

What Is a Sensory Diet and How Do I Use One? — OT Untangled

The first time I learned about a sensory diet in a practical sense was in my second placement in my Occupational therapy program (which is where I currently work now!). Prior to this practical experience, I was very unsure about sensory interventions and diets because the way that we learned about them was very specific and medically directed. I remember learning about the brushing technique and how it has to be done a certain way and at certain times. As someone who experiences quite a few sensory preferences and sensitivities, I recognized that SOMETIMES I like certain sensations and sometimes they are triggering for me. For example, sometimes I love the fleece blanket my father in law gave us for Christmas and sometimes the feeling of that fabric makes me shudder. Or sometimes if I am anxious I love the weight of my weighted blanket, and sometimes it makes me even more anxious. So for me, I felt that I could not subscribe to the idea of sensory interventions.

When I began my placement, my preceptor told me that I would be working with a non speaking client who’s parent wanted a sensory diet built. There was no other information specified, just that she wanted it to help her regulate so she could be part of the groups she attended instead of needing constant sensory input from other people. This is when I learned the value of communicating with parent that this process may look like ongoing trial and error. I built a list of different sensory strategies based on the needs she was demonstrating, and with the help of the Occupational Therapy Assistant student that worked with her during programming, we tried out each strategy and kept a log of which ones seemed to be beneficial and which she didn’t care for. As we narrowed the list down, we worked on trying to see which strategies she could use on her own, which she needed someone’s help with and which ones she could use independently once prompted. We were able to come up with a box of strategies for her to use at our day program, and made a list of suggestions for mom to have at home. This is when I realized that there is never going to be one solid recommendation to “solve” it all.

Similar to Nikita’s blog post, I believe the best way to work on a sensory diet for a client is WITH a client and their support system. It is important to work together to see not only what their needs are, but also what is beneficial and then what is possible in settings outside of the therapy session. I always like to start with giving the Sensory Profile to my clients and their families so they can share what they experience at home (you can also try to create a similar survey to collect the same information). Then working with the client we will try different sensory strategies and see what they react positively to. Creating an list with a few choices allows the client and their support system to work together during challenging sensory times to assess the situation and pick a strategy that may work in the moment. With some of my clients I go one step further with our lists.

One of my clients is working on becoming independent with using his strategies, so for him we have created a sensory diet AND general strategies list and have connected it to his understanding of the Zones of Regulation. Together we talked about each one of his strategies and when he might use it, ex: when he is in a yellow zone he might put on headphones to block out sound or go for a walk. When this is possible (comprehension of client etc), it provides autonomy for them to be able to create their lists and make them part of their reality.

Whether the client knows the zones or not, it may be helpful to work with their support system to make a sensory diet list that associates with the Zones of Regulation. This way if the client does not recognize their need to use their strategies or sensory diet, their support can observe their emotions and offer the associated strategies. I know Nikita has a lovely visual check in list on her site that you can use to check in with the individual to see how they’re feeling and what they need (here).

Something that I like to keep in mind when creating a sensory diet and recommending various strategies, is to consider the reality of this being useful outside of the therapy space and what can be done to make it more realistic. First considering the strategies themselves; are you trying out options that your client will have access to in their everyday life. If you are recommending heavy work or activity, are you practicing jumping on a trampoline during your session but then the client doesn’t have a trampoline at work/school/home etc? Are you recommending equipment that the family can’t afford to have in their home or can’t install it due to structural challenges or modificationn limits due to renting their home? Keeping the items simple and chatting with support to see what is possible and what are easy/portable/low cost alternatives to what you may have at a clinic.

Second, consider the education you need to provide to the support system to have the sensory diet work for them out in the community. How do they know when the client needs what strategy (creating the connection with emotions may help), How long do they use the strategy with the client? What can they do if one strategy that usually works, doesn’t work in the moment? Sometimes sensory diets can be perceived as a list of items that clients have tried and will just work right away in all situations. As we know as people that work with individuals with varying neurodiversities (and maybe you are one of them just like me!), often times the person using these strategies might need help initiating the strategy. They might need help figuring out which one to use and maybe what to try if their first go to strategy isn’t helping. This is where the client and support may need some extra education and support!

And finally, remembering that just because someone has a sensory diet, doesn’t mean all their challenging times will require a sensory strategy! Sometimes meltdowns, panic attacks, etc may be associated with things that are not sensory related, and the individual is trying to communicate with you. For example sometimes my anxiety requires a weighted blanket, and sometimes it requires my fiancee to notice the piles of laundry that are overwhelming me and sit me down to fold them with me. Sometimes my non speaking autistic clients need a chew or to go on the swing to self regulate, and sometimes they’re screaming because they stepped in a puddle and their socks are wet and their feet are cold.

No matter what your ideas about sensory theories are, please remember that you are working with a person who is constantly changing and has different experiences each day just like you! Each day may be different, so their sensory diet will need to have variety and options for them to succeed 🙂

If you have any experiences with sensory diets (as someone that makes them, uses them, loves them, hates them etc) please share in the comments! I am always looking to continue learning not only from books, academic workshops etc but also from other people’s experiences !

Published by maiiflowerr

Pronouns She/Her/they/them. I'm a millennial just trying to make a difference in the world, and create space for people to accept themselves and live their best lives. My fiancee, Sydney, and I are mothers to our two goofy cats, and the queens of creative adventures. I am an Occupational therapist, a dancer and a yoga instructor with a passion for supporting people and creating community.

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