Sensory Diet

Every human uses sensory strategies to wake themselves up in the morning, to calm themselves down when stressed or anxious, or to maintain attention when feeling sleepy or bored. However, not all sensory information is organising and not all of us, use these strategies effectively to maintain optimal levels of arousal and performance in the nervous system throughout the day.

The term ‘sensory diet’ was coined by Wilbarger and Wilbarger (Occupational Therapists), in order to describe a planned and scheduled therapy program which incorporates specific types of sensory input into a child/adult’s daily routine, in order to meet their sensory needs. A well designed and implemented sensory diet can help a client appropriately orientate and respond to sensations, as well as reduce sensory defensive responses which can negatively affection social participation. It can also eliminate many challenging behaviours, including those which are self-stimulatory or self-injurious in nature. A sensory diet is not just about adding more sensory input into a person’s day; as this can sometimes over-stimulate, thus creating or exacerbating negative responses. A sensory diet is about providing the “just-right” combination of sensory input, where the child is an active participant, in order to achieve a “calm-alert” state.

An Occupational Therapist (OT) who has a solid background in sensory processing theories (e.g. post-graduate qualifications in sensory integration) and advanced clinical training and knowledge of the relevant treatment principles, will work with a client and their caregivers to identify what everyday challenges they face and what sensory information the client is having difficulty processing. They will then work together to identify goals for treatment and the OT will provide education to all those involved. The OT will identify which sensory strategies should be included and when to implement them in a client’s typical daily routine. Sensory strategies are scheduled at regular intervals during the day; particularly before or during activities which are particularly challenging. These strategies can vary in how powerful they are, and their effects will vary from one person to another (with both positive and negative effects evident up to 6-8 hours later); so it is essential to understand the central nervous system and sensory integration theory in order to create the most effective sensory diet for the client.

Sensory diets are individualised therapy programs, which incorporate client preferences and needs, and generally include deep touch pressure, movement and heavy work input; however, they may also include auditory, visual, oral motor and respiration activities to meet the client’s needs. The treatment plan is then integrated within the client’s current therapeutic and educational programs. A sensory diet does not only include a program of activities, but also provides suggestions for interactions, modifications to the environment and beneficial leisure activities. Regular contact with the client should be maintained and the sensory diet should be monitored by an OT on at least a weekly basis, with specific activities modified or discontinued based on client progress.

Using a sensory diet on a daily basis can help improve attention/concentration, arousal level, social interaction, learning, sleep patterns and self-care skills (eating, dressing, toileting, bathing). It can also help to reduce frustration, stress and anxiety; enabling a client to feel more in control. If you or your child has sensory processing difficulties, then it may be worth discussing the possibility of a sensory diet with an Occupational Therapist.


Lara Breaker – Rolfe
Advanced Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner
Beanstalk Children’s Therapy

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