Serving Up a ‘Sensory Diet’ for Children on the Spectrum

An occupational therapist with Gateway Pediatric Therapy dishes on sensory diets and how they help kids with autism overcome both over- and under-responsiveness.

To a child with sensory over-responsiveness, the slimy texture of ice cream and yogurt can send them into a screaming fit. On the flip side, for kids who have sensory under-responsiveness, a scraped knee from jumping off the playground equipment at school doesn’t even faze them.

“Sensory processing occurs following the detection of a sensation while being able to organize, interpret and process the incoming information to adapt or respond appropriately,” says Andrew Beveridge, an occupational therapist at Gateway Pediatric Therapy.

When your nervous system is functioning properly, this occurs automatically. “However, sensory processing can oftentimes become disorganized and mismanaged,” he adds, “which can result in high levels of dysfunction for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.”

How sensory issues affect kids

As an occupational therapist, Beveridge works with children with autism on sensory integration therapy. Most kids on the autism spectrum have sensory issues, and some present with a combination of sensory over-responsiveness and under-responsiveness, he says.

“A lot of the time, what we see in the field or what parents mention that they notice at home is either an overload of sensory information, which causes the child to shut down if they are hypersensitive to certain sensory inputs – or they’re sensory-seeking, so that can sometimes appear to look like attention-deficit disorder or ADHD.”

These children could benefit from working with an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists provide a variety of services to children with autism, including the implementation of a sensory diet.

What is a sensory diet?

A sensory diet is a “recipe” for therapeutic tasks and activities designed to help kids with autism overcome their sensory difficulties.

“The sensory diet is something that is [used] throughout the field of occupational therapy,” Beveridge says. “It’s definitely something that I bring up almost all the time with all my parents.”

Beveridge suggests introducing a sensory diet during a child’s early developmental milestone years – around ages 3-5, which is when they are expected to begin exploring the world around them more independently.

“All sensory diets are designed with the child’s specific sensory needs and sensitivities in mind with the intent of producing a positive experience,” he says. “A child is never forced to engage in an activity.”

In order to create a sensory diet, an occupational therapist collaborates with the child’s family, teachers and anyone else the child interacts with on a daily basis. It is imperative to consult with an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration therapy before attempting to implement a formal sensory diet, he adds.

The “diet” includes activities and tasks the child conducts in the morning, afternoon and evening.

“The sensory diet can include tasks and activities emphasizing various forms of input including but not limited to tactile/touch, visual, auditory, motor and proprioceptive, which promote the release of neurochemicals throughout the day,” he says.

“Through determining what are the exact triggers for these behaviors, we can address some of those hypersensitivities through sensory integration therapy by developing a sensory diet,” Beveridge says. “Integrating a sensory diet into the daily routine of a child can be greatly beneficial even for children who are prescribed medication for behavioral reasons as the diet is designed to work alongside all prescribed medications to shape behavior and not meant to replace the prescribed medication.”

Tasks and activities

Activities and tasks that an occupational therapist may suggest to a family include, but are not limited to, listening to music, playing with textured materials, wheelbarrow walking, swinging, jumping on a trampoline and scaling a rock climbing wall, which is now featured at Gateway’s newest location in Livonia.

And when it comes to settling down in the evening, weighted blankets are one option. In therapy sessions, Beveridge says kids love to lie down on their backs and have a yoga ball compressed on their arms, legs, and back. This is something families could try at home, as well.

“By providing children with appropriate sensory-based activities throughout their day and being aware of aversive stimuli, the child will be less likely to search for or avoid sensory input in inappropriate or destructive ways,” Beveridge says.

‘Diet’ adjustments

As children grow, their sensitivities will change, so expect their sensory diets to need some adjustments.

In order to assess the child’s progress and address any changes that may be needed, it is standard for the therapy team to check in with the family to continually assess the efficacy of the sensory diet and to make ongoing changes or updates as needed.

“The sensory diet is constantly being assessed and modified to meet the child’s needs,” he says.

Sensory integration is something that is continued until the child is able to use the diet independently, which is the ultimate goal.

For more information about Gateway Pediatric Therapy and the services provided, visit the Gateway Pediatric Therapy website.


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