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Sensory Diets for Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Getting Through the Summer Months

Very few moms and dads have heard of a “sensory diet” for kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA).  Yet, a sensory diet may be the most important thing parents can do to help their children on the spectrum get through the “unstructured” summer months. In this article, we will look at what this diet is – and how you use it:

Just as your AS or HFA youngster needs food throughout the course of the day, his or her need for sensory input must also be met. A “sensory diet” is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input that a child on the autism spectrum needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. Just as you may chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, AS and HFA kids need to engage in stabilizing, focused activities too. Infants, younger kids, teenagers – and even grown-ups with mild to severe sensory issues can all benefit from a personalized sensory diet.

Each AS and HFA youngster has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a youngster whose nervous system is on “high trigger/too wired” needs more calming input, while the youngster who is more “sluggish/too tired” needs more arousing input. Qualified occupational therapists can use their advanced training and evaluation skills to develop a good sensory diet for your youngster, but it’s up to you as a parent - and your youngster - to implement the diet throughout the course of the day.

Developing a sensory diet for your child is well worth the time and effort, because the effects of this diet are usually immediate AND cumulative. Activities that perk up your youngster or calm him/her down are not only effective in the moment – they actually help to restructure your youngster’s nervous system over time so that he or she is better able to (a) handle transitions with less stress, (b) limit sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors, (c) regulate alertness, (d) increase attention span, and (e) tolerate sensations and situations that are challenging.

A sensory diet is like a diet that a nutritionist may recommend for proper nutrients and calories. It is developed to provide your AS or HFA youngster with the sensory stimulation (nutrients) that he or she requires for (a) helping maintain an optimum level of arousal, (b) promoting a level of alertness needed to develop self-regulation and behavioral organization, (c) increase gross/fine motor skills, (d) increase self-care and play/leisure skills, and (e) reducing sensory defensiveness.

The qualities of the sensory-motor activities recommended below impact the nervous system and have a modulating (i.e., calming or alerting) influence on behavior. Initially, the activities need to be repeated throughout the day (3 times works best) to help your youngster maintain an optimal level of behavior.  As behavior changes, it can be determined as to how much and how frequent sensory input is needed. 

A sensory diet is made up of activities from several sensory systems, each having a different effect on the youngster’s nervous system. Below are descriptions of these sensory systems and their associated sensory-motor activities:

1. The Proprioceptive System: This system receives input from the joints and muscles and provides the child with information about the position of his or her body.  This input is strongest during movement and heavy work activities and helps with the integration of tactile input. Examples of activities which provide proprioceptive, deep pressure and heavy work input include the following:
  • Arm wrestling
  • Carrying heavy objects (e.g., filled laundry baskets, large soft drink bottles, a load of books, removing wet laundry from the washing machine, dragging or carrying grocery bags from the car to the kitchen) 
  • Climbing on monkey bars, jungle gyms, or a chin-up bar
  • Crashing into several large cushions, beanbags or comforters (e.g., have the youngster dive, jump, roll, stretch and burrow in the cushions; use a crash cushion by stuffing large foam scraps into a comforter cover or into a large bag made by sewing two sheets together)
  • Have the child clean a mirror or window to help develop shoulder strength and stability
  • Hide objects in play-doh or silly putty
  • Make a sandwich out of the youngster between pillows, and add pressure as you pretend to put on pickles, cheese, lettuce, smooth on mayo, etc.
  • Swimming
  • Tug-of-war
  • Wheelbarrow walking

Ways to get heavy work orally:
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Chewy foods (e.g., fruit leather, bagels, turkey jerky, gum, taffy, etc.)
  • Crunchy foods (e.g., apple chunks, chips)

2. The Tactile System: This system is responsible for providing feedback about how something feels and where the child feels touch.  It allows the child to interpret if something is cold, hot, wet, dry, sharp or dull – and whether it is safe touch or unsafe touch. Examples of activities with tactile input (touch) include the following:
  • Cut a hole in the top of a shoe box and place different objects in the box (e.g., a spool, marbles, plastic animals, little toys).  Hide items the child wants in this box (e.g., puzzle pieces or balls to a game) and have the child find the item he or she wants. 
  • Fill a large washtub or kitchen sink with sudsy water and a variety of unbreakable pitchers, bottles, turkey basters, sponges, eggbeaters and toy pumps.  Pouring and measuring are excellent for developing the tactile system.
  • Try finger painting on a tray or mirror with paints, sand mixed into paint, peanut butter, shaving cream or pudding.
  • Offer different kinds of soap (e.g., oatmeal soap, shaving cream, lotion soap) and differently textured scrubbers (e.g., loofa sponges, thick washcloths, foam pot scrubbers, plastic brushes).

3. The Vestibular System: This system responds to motion, changes in head position and gravitational pull.  It is a very important system because of its influence over muscle tone, balance and equilibrium, posture, coordination of the two sides of the body, and the coordination or eye movements with head movements. Examples of activities with vestibular input (movement) include the following:
  • Have the child swing on a swing set lying on his or her back, on the stomach, sitting, or standing.
  • Have the child swing forward, backward, side to side, or rotating.
  • Bouncing on a ball, or jumping on a trampoline or bed is a great activity.
  • Throwing beanbags at a target while swinging is another effective activity.
  • Use slides and merry-go-rounds.
  • Wrapping the child in a blanket and unrolling him quickly (roll in both directions or down a hill) is yet another helpful activity.  
  • Bouncing on a “hippity hop” ball is good too.

These sensory diets don’t have to take a long time.  Try to do them at the same time for 5-10 minutes throughout the day – especially during the unstructured summer months. It’s recommended that they are done at least 2-3 times a day, or immediately before the child is expected to do an activity requiring his or her undivided attention (e.g., doing homework). Also, be sure to ask your youngster’s occupational therapist for more ideas.

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