Sensory Diet

This is the final part in a series about sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing. Read the other parts: Part 1  |  Part 2 | Part 3

When we think of diet or dieting, we usually think of restricting our intake in some way. But a sensory diet isn’t about restriction, it’s about fulfilling sensory needs and improving self-regulation with a specific selection of sensory activities.

The term sensory diet originated in the occupational therapy field and is commonly used in relation to both autism and sensory processing disorder. To create a sensory diet, an occupational therapist looks at a person’s areas of sensory hypo- and hyper-reactivity and comes up with ways to help up-regulate or down-regulate them.

This video has some great examples of the types of sensory activities that are often prescribed:

Going Up?

Sensory diet activities come in two flavors: upregulating and downregulating. Upregulating activities help to stimulate under-reactive senses. Downregulating activities, in contrast, help calm over-reactive senses.

Sometimes an activity that is upregulating for one person or in one situation can be downregulating for another person or in a different situation. For example, bouncing on a trampoline can stimulate the proprioceptive sensory channel but it can also help calm someone who is overloaded (by releasing excess energy). 

Sometimes an activity can be both, simultaneously. Exercising first thing in the morning is downregulating for me because it helps me organize my body into a calm, smoothly functioning unit. It’s also upregulating because it helps me wake up and get focused on what’s ahead for the day. When I don’t exercise, I’m more likely to feel sluggish, anxious and distracted in the morning.

The Senses: 5 Plus 3

A well-rounded sensory takes into account the five senses that we all learned about in kindergarten–sight, sound, taste, touch and smell–plus the three sensory channels that most of us probably never learned about–proprioceptive, vestibular and interoceptive input. The “plus 3” sensory channels provide important feedback using sensory receptors that we can’t see, like fluid filled canals in the inner ear or nervous system sensors within the muscles.

Here’s a crash course on the “plus 3”:

Vestibular: Am I moving? How and where? Is my body balanced? Upright? Falling?

Proprioception: Where is my body in space? Where is each body part relative to the others?

Interoception: What’s going on with my internal organs?

While not everyone needs additional sensory input across all sensory channels, it’s important to think about each type of input when creating and assessing the effectiveness of your sensory diet.

Balancing Scheduled Input with Intuitive Fulfillment

Sensory diets are often presented as a set of scheduled activities. Because most sensory diets are created for children, a certain amount of scheduling is necessary to ensure that the child has daily opportunities to fulfill their sensory needs. However, a sensory diet that is too rigidly scheduled risks being, well, too rigid. Imagine having your eating plan for the week all written out in advance. Then imagine having to stick with it, even if Wednesday evening rolls around and you’re craving a big plate of spaghetti but your meal plan says you’re having chicken salad.

My approach to fulfilling my sensory needs falls in the middle: scheduled but flexible. There are things that I do most days, including exercising in the morning and using my weighted blanket in the evening. There are things that I do in response to specific situations, like listening to music or playing with my thinking putty when I need to concentrate on something boring. There are also things that I do rarely or spontaneously or unconsciously. (I expand on this a little in the video at the end of this post.)

Goals? No Thanks

My sensory diet has only one goal: making life easier by helping me self-regulate.

When OTs prescribe sensory diets for children, they often include goals like “learning to tolerate sensations and situations that are challenging” or “reducing sensory seeking” or “limiting sensory avoidant behavior”. To me those all look like codewords for sensory desensitization. Just typing that makes me shudder. (I’ve explained why I’m not a fan of desensitization in the other parts in this series.)

When I think of sensory input, I think of comfort. I think of balancing myself and making situations less stressful. In choosing sensory diet activities, I ask myself how can I use sensory input to reduce anxiety, to calm myself when I’m overloaded or to burn off excess energy when I’m overstimulated? In the same way that I eat when I’m hungry, I engage in sensory activities when I’m feeling overloaded, unfocused, or flat. Before I knew that I was autistic, I’d intuitively created a fairly rich sensory landscape. Over the past year, I’ve added new activities that fill sensory needs in an intentional way.

Breaking It Down, One Sense at a Time

Let’s look at the sensory diet areas one at a time to get an idea of what sensory activities look like and how they work. I’m going to approach the way the senses are categorized and how I talk about activities based on how I experience them, which is a little different than the typical approach.

Generally, sensory diets have a lot of emphasis on tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive and oral sensory input. And for good reason. Those “Big 4” tend to include the activities that have the largest sensory “bang for the buck.” I’ll cover the Big 4 individually and then wrap up with an overview of the remaining senses.

Tactile

There are two ways to experience tactile sensory input: things you touch and things that touch you. This sounds like an odd way to categorize tactile sensations but bear with me.

In the “things you touch” category are things that provide input primarily via:

  • texture (smooth, soft, rough, bumpy, slippery, sticky)

  • consistency (pliable, stiff, poppable, brittle, bendable)

  • movement (fidget toys)

So basically things you can touch, hold or manipulate in some way.

In the “things that touch you” category are less tangible things, including:

  • temperature (hot or cold water, sunshine, fire in a fireplace)

  • pressure (tight or heavy clothing, hugs, weighted blanket or lap pad)

  • vibration (moving vehicle, deep resonant sounds)

Proprioceptive

This category is tricky because there is some overlap with the “things that touch you” portion of the tactile category. For example, on the list below, most of the pressure inputs are tactile as well as proprioceptive.

Proprioceptive input can be split into 3 types:

Impact inputs: bouncing, running, jumping, pogo stick, tumbling, crash pads

Pressure inputs: squeezing into tight spaces, pressure postures, lifting heavy things, deep tissue massage, weighted blanket, compression clothing

Stretching inputs: lying over or rolling around on an exercise ball, stretching exercises, yoga, playing Twister

Vestibular

The vestibular category comprises balance and movement, including some activities that aren’t immediately obvious (like being upside down):

  • Spinning

  • Rocking

  • Swinging

  • Hanging upside down

  • Tumbling, cartwheels, flips

  • Rollercoasters

  • Bicycle, scooter, skateboard, in-line skates

  • Jumping off of objects

This category can be harder to fulfill as an adult because a lot of the activities that are most enjoyable are also considered either childish or socially inappropriate. Not that we care, right?

Oral

I’m calling this category oral rather than gustatory because sensory input from our mouth includes both taste and tactile input. Taste is pretty obvious. Spicy, minty or other strong flavors can be upregulating; plain foods can be comforting.

Tactile input is what foodies call “mouthfeel”–the sensation of food in your mouth and on your tongue. Temperature (hot, warm, cold), consistency (thick, runny), resistance (crunchy, chewy, frozen) and texture (grainy, fibrous, smooth) all contribute to oral tactile input. For me, contrast is the key. In the morning, I like to have a frozen smoothie followed by a warm cup of chai. I also love foods that are a mix of hot and cold or soft and crunchy: sandwiches with crunchy bread, salads with cooked foods and raw veggies, soup with tortilla chips, chips with dip, Frito pies, chocolate covered fruit.

Finally, the physical act of chewing (hard or crunchy foods, gum, chewies) or sucking (straws, hard candies, ice) can be a strong source of sensory input.

Sight, Sound, Smell

Many sensory diets emphasize minimizing sound and sight input due to sensory sensitivities. While this is important, it shouldn’t be the only focus of these sensory areas. Many of us enjoy visual, auditory or olfactory input and find it calming or stimulating. It’s important to find things in these categories that you like as well as finding ways to avoid sensitivities. Common sensory activities in each category include:

Sight: repetitive visuals, moving objects, spinning objects, patterned visuals, preferred colors or shapes

Sound: music, resonance, repetition, echolalia, animal sounds, silence, being underwater, singing, playing an instrument, humming

Smell: soothing scents, memory scents, stimulating scents

That wraps up the senses that you’ll usually see addressed in a sensory diet prescription. But what about interoception? This last one is complicated because often the strongest interoceptive feedback comes from deprivation–not eating, not sleeping, not going to the bathroom. None of these are healthy ways of stimulating our interceptive senses.

The only active, healthy method of interoceptive stimulation that I can think of is slow, deep breathing. There must be more, but I’m stumped.

Where to Begin

If you’ve never purposely considered how you fulfill your sensory needs, I recommend taking some time to analyze what you’re doing now and what else you might want to add to your sensory landscape. It doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Here are some starting points:

  • Identify situations or times of day when you often feel overloaded or flat. This is where planned sensory input can help.

Then consider:

  • What sensory inputs do you like? Look through the examples in this post and the video to start. (There’s also a good chance that if this post has been up for awhile, the comments are already full of awesome examples from others – hint, hint.)

  • What do you need more of? You can approach this from an up-/downregulating viewpoint or by thinking about each sensory category.

  • What do you need less of? Sometimes we have things in our sensory landscape that are overstimulating or unhealthy. It’s a good idea to try purposefully replacing these with other, comparable sensory inputs.

  • How can you take advantage of routine or scheduling to enhance your sensory landscape? Doing a few things consistently as part of your daily schedule can make a big difference when it comes to being better regulated over the long term.

  • What kinds of activities can you put “in reserve” to do as needed? For example, my putty is always nearby on my desk or the dining room table.

Sensory Regulation in the Long Term

There’s a short video outtake from my video blogging experiment that I want to share as a postscript. The general theme is that managing sensory input and regulation is something that happens in both the short term and as a lifelong process. It’s something that each of us will approach differently. Here’s what I’ve found works for me:

67 thoughts on “Sensory Diet”

  1. I love, love, love this post, Cynthia. I’ve been interested in proprioception for a while, but you’ve given me two new concepts to research! All of this makes a great deal of sense to me in relation to certain people I know, and especially in relation to difficulties children can have in school. And not just kids in one particular bracket – this winter’s cold weather has led to many days of “indoor recess” that leave both teachers and kids at my internship placement in a state of frustration. My feeling is that a sensory diet is important to us all at every age, but that unfortunately adults tend to lock down on just a small number of (often unhealthy, sometimes destructive) sensory experiences (typically sex, food, or substance use). Your post is inspiring me to take the time to broaden my own “diet.” And for my part, actual nutritional diet plays a huge role in whether I’m feeling (nervously) up or (hopelessly) down. It’s taken me a long time to figure that out, as I didn’t get much help along the way, but I’m at the point of being very aware how different foods make me feel. This week I happen to be attempting a candida cleanse (which I’ve done before but incompletely), eating only salad greens and a few non-starchy, non-sweet vegetables, lightly dressed and/or cooked in olive oil. Among several benefits, I am experiencing greater nerve response. Anyway, thank you as always.

    1. I wonder if typical adults benefit as much from sensory input as adults on the spectrum do? I never thought of it that way before, but when you mention the kinds of sensory experiences that a lot of adults engage in to self-regulate, it makes me appreciate the many different options that I have a lot more. 🙂

      1. Yes, I think the examples I gave actually represent an impoverishment of the senses, and that we’d all benefit from regular experience of a broader range of sensations – preferably those that also support rather than diminish our relationship with the environment and others. Enjoy your sensitivity!

  2. Thanks for writing all this out so clearly and with such fantastic examples. I love the point you make at the beginning of your video that sensory regulation is constant. You don’t just meet a need and move on. So important for me to remember that, both when working with kids on their sensory input and maybe even more importantly as I move throughout my day and work towards forgiveness for my atypical senses.

    As far as interoception, I have seen some sensory plans (working at a combined SLP/PT/OT pediatric rehab) that included this, but they were few and far between for exactly the reason you mention – it’s all about deprivation, or otherwise promoting discomfort (like with overeating). At the clinic it was included in sensory diets not only in a small percentage of kids, but as a very tiny percentage of the focus of those kids’ diets, since basic health and wellness from nutrition, sleep, etc. have to come first.

    One interesting thing about regulating interoceptive sensation is that it is possible to do so (at least to an extent) without actively modifying behaviors like changing meal quantities or sleep schedules, but it takes some cognitive attention and can be too much for even the most focused and patient of children. Teen and adults wishing to self-regulate interoception can try keeping a log of things like fullness and wakefulness, or even just pausing at random or scheduled times during the day to check in on these factors. For instance, I do not make a point to alter my meal schedule based on sensory diet needs, but I use a chart (this one, which can be used for both disordered and non-disordered eating: http://nutritiontherapy.org/NTA%20content/Products/Basic%20Hunger%20Satiety%20Scale.pdf) to check in with myself before I eat and after I eat – if I remember! – and assign my fullness level a number. The act of bringing cognitive attention to interoceptive senses (this can also be done with sleep, using the bathroom, pain levels…) can serve to mimic actively delivering that sensory input.

    This is really helpful for me when I feel “off” and I can’t figure out why (not sick, getting a lot of tactile stimming, not stressed…so what’s the deal?). It’s not super intuitive and I’m sure it’s not universally effective, but as an autistic and eating disordered adult I find it very regulating, and I have seen it used effectively with children when incorporated with play therapy. Worth a shot!

    1. Thank you for that link you shared; it looks like an excellent tool. As for interoception, although the term itself is new to me, I have experimented with it unknowingly at times when, lying down quietly before sleep, I’ve rested my hand on my belly and felt the subtle workings within. For reasons not so easy to articulate, this has given me feelings of contentment – possibly because the very subtlety I refer to is a message to me that things are working as they should.

    2. That chart is really enlightening. I realized in looking at it that I basically only eat when I’m at a 0 or 1. I should probably work on that. I also like the idea of pausing occasionally to check in on things like hunger or tiredness. All of your interception suggestions are great. Thank you for taking the time to share them.

      When I was researching sensory diet, I saw comments that gave me the impression that some parents thought that a year or two or whatever of OT would “fix” sensory seeking behavior and their kids would grow out of or no longer have the need to regulate via sensory input. So I wanted to point out that sensory diets are for adults too and we’re self-regulating frequently, either consciously or unconsciously, throughout the day.

  3. A lot of these resonate with me, but there’s one in particular I’d like to pick up on: Music. My main sensory overload is (chaotic) noise, and last Friday, I tried keeping my earphones in on awareness mode(so I can hear everything around me), while playing music trough them from my cell phone. That was a major help in keeping me from being overwhelmed. Also: with a single push of a button, I can change between awareness mode and noise cancellation mode, so if I do feel I start to get overwhelmed, I just shut out the conversation for a few minutes.

  4. This is super. I am just beginning to work self regulation into my life. This post will be wonderfully helpful. A couple of small examples: I’ve wondered why I (like you) have to either workout in the morning or do at least an hour or two of vigorous chores. I see now why, after a trip to a crowded store – which is terrible for me, that normally I’ll be useless for the rest of the day. But, if I go for a walk/jog or do a bunch of garden clean-up after coming home from the store, then I get my energy back. There’s hope for me yet. Thank you.

    1. Exercise is amazingly regulating for me. Possibly the thing in my life that has the biggest impact on a daily basis. And this is strange to say but I miss having a yard sometimes because, as you say,weeding and raking, etc can be really calming.

      There’s hope for all of us! 🙂

  5. I don’t like to bother you with an email normally. But this post is genius, and just un-locked an unbelievably difficult series of knots in my thinking and behavior that I’d been trying to figure out for more than 20 years. I won’t go into the too-long of a story, but briefly, I think armed with this information I’ll be able to unblock a lot of myself that was stuck.

    Humoungous thank you. And virtual hug.

    – Lucy

  6. Thank you for this post and this whole series which has been very interesting and helpful. I especially like the idea of a sensory diet being something necessary, important and ongoing.

    I think the thing that is most important to my sensory diet is swimming. All round body sense, probably proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile. The smell, the feel of the water touching my body, my balance in the water, noticing others around me, visual stimulation, especially with bubbles or sunlight and aural (often too much so I do need to wear earplugs here.

    The beach. Everything about the beach is perfect but unfortunately rare to experience. But again a myriad of textures, good smells, good sounds, wind pushing my body, waves slapping my body, visual stimulation.

    These are the best ‘up’ things for me. The best soothing or down things are silence and darkness. I don’t have a soothing tactile or physical thing though so I am going to explore this.

    I was sad to read about sensory diets minimising sight input. My visual sense is my most pleasurable and important sense and is so strong and important to me it is almost as if I am smelling, touching and hearing with my eyes too.

    1. I love swimming too and especially swimming in the ocean. The movement of the waves and the slight pressure of the ocean water is very calming. Last year we made a late season visit to the beach and the air temp was in the fifties with the water in the upper 60s but I spent nearly an hour swimming. I refused to miss out on that rare chance to get in the ocean, regardless of how uncooperative the weather was being. 🙂

      I’m curious if you have specific visual sensory input that you regularly seek out and/or find helpful in self-regulating? So many visual activities (watching moving objects, staring at patterns) seem to be regarded as “unhealthy” and I’m not sure why.

  7. Thank you, this is very useful! Great overview over the types of basic sensory needs and great point that a sensory diet isn’t a “cure” but a way to keep everyday life in balance.

    Looking at the video with the kids, man I would love those toys…Especially the steam roller thing, I’d happily roll through that on all day long if I didn’t have any duties. I also like the spinning board and the texture ball, and the heavy cat the boy has hanging on his arm in the start of the video.

    The area were I’m most sensory seeking, based on your overview – is proprioception. When I read the “input words” within all three categories (impact, pressure, stretching) then I immediately feel “hunger” to do each of these things, those are types of activities I always have an urge to do and even a brief reminder like seeing each word makes me want to do it.

    The second strongest is tactile… When I looked at the girl on the spinning board, what seems most attractive about the activity is the sensation of texture I imagine from touching the carpet with her hands and arms in different way while spinning oneself around. Vestibular is also a need in its own right, but there are also many things on the vestibular list I don’t or rarely do.

    I’m also sound seeking (although background noise often cause me problems and sometimes pain, I intensely enjoy some sounds and rhythms), but the biggest part of that is imaginary sound self-stimulation:-). I often imagine sounds or rhythms that make me feel good and are calming, or sharpen my attention and ability to organise inputs in the surrounding – a sort of overlay function. Or I hum, which combines sound stimuation with – proprioception? Internal? stimulation.

    Visual is central too, that’s my main intellectual processing sense I guess. While I do enjoy looking at interesting and beatiful things, visual is often a source of overstimulation though (sound too). I often find the surrondings have too many moving and flickering parts (and sounds). My mind is already constantly streaming with visual concepts and speculations, so that might be why it is too much – I’m already visually saturated before even starting to look at the surroundings.

    I experience sensory cross-over between tactile and visual in some areas. For example, deep pressure foot massage tend to trigger deep, overwhelming, extremely pleasurable visuals combined with intensely pleasurable and relaxing “flow sensations” in the body and head. For example intense colour patterns and compositions of items, lanscapes, buildings, things or parts in overwhelmingly great resolution and detail, for example a small section of an imagined brick wall, a patch on an imagined door, a mailbox in a strong colour, etc. I know this may sound like I’m taking drugs;-) I’m not, but I do think that what I experience from this kind of stimulation resembles being high on drugs, just it is built-in and relatively unpredictable, and there are no bad side-effects… on the contrary, it recharges me and can removes stress and worries, so I start on a fresh.

    I also use sensory imagination a lot to satisfy my own sensory needs and reestablish balance and process the surrroundings, both visual, auditory and – proprioceptive imagination? (sort of self-spacial imagination, I guess that is proprioception). Visual is probably the sense I use most to interpret and organise the surroundings. Visual imagination helps me when I drive in traffic for example, by helping me filter out irrelevant clutter and read the inputs in the surroundings so I do the right things at the right timing by following the imaginary cues and flowing through the visual “channels” that my imagination “overlays” on real life, typically by visualising and highlighthing coloured lines. For example, I imagine a line drawn in front of me to highlight the lane I need to stay in/turn into in a traffic intersection (where I can easily get confused about all the lines). Or I visually imagine the options of paths other cars may take as lines, which makes it easier to be ahead of what will happen next around me in traffic, and prioritise the most likely scenario while still be aware of other options. (it only works in some situations and is often impossible to activate if I’m already overloaded) Or, while in a km long queue on the motorway that is stuck in a relentless “start-stop” driving pattern, I visual the queue in front of me as a km long giant crawling larva to better asses the rhythm of the stops and help me adjust my speed and the gap in front of me so that when I reach the car in front of me, it has just started to move again – to break the larva pattern and avoid the inefficient and draining relentess “start-stop” driving pattern for myself and the cars behind me in the queue.

    And, when I drive in my car and listens to the car radio it makes it easier to follow what the radio host is saying when I visualise the intonation as visual curves, and especially if I slightly exxagerate the ups and downs. Actually I use that same trick to better hear what people sayon the phone. And visualisation help me when I sing too… to help me be right on the rhythm (not my strong side, but people don’t notice it), pronounce sounds accurately, steer my sound …

    When I think about it, I use visual imagination (~enhance my sensory processing of the surrondings by manipulating it with visual imagination)… a LOT. It is incredible useful, I would be so much worse off without it.

    When I consider the above, then I realise that my abnormal sensory processing profile doesn’t only cause me great difficulties with situations most people are fine in, it is also a really strong raw material for self-healing and pleasure, and for making tools that help me bridge gaps in my abilities all the time!

    1. Oh man, why do I always do this…The most mening-distracting typo is probably the one where the boy in the start of the kid video has what looks like a heavy plus cat hanging over his arm and my comment calls him a “body” instead of a “boy”. Are you able to fix that when you have time, because it is a creepy mistake… it makes it sound like it is a dead cat.

        1. Thank you very much!

          I’m afraid I already made new typos in my next comment:-( I don’t know why I do it, it is very annoying. The comment looks correct until after I click on “Post Comment”. It also slows down my own blogging a lot that I have to focus so much on typo-weeding (there should be a kind of pesticide for that!)

    2. I would love a sensory room filled with those toys too! Especially the swing and that giant body sock thing and a trampoline. Just watching the video makes me happy.

      Your description is of sensory crossover (I guess a kind of synesthesia?) is fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention a crossover between tactile and visual input. It sounds very enjoyable. Also, proprioceptive imagination is a great term. I’m going to be thinking about that one a lot because I think I rely heavily on a kind of proprioceptive imagining to not only navigate the world but to do some intellectual tasks too, like writing. Wow. So much to thinking about.

      it is also a really strong raw material for self-healing and pleasure, and for making tools that help me bridge gaps in my abilities all the time

      This is so true! I think often in an OT context we get very focused on how sensory sensitivities cause us difficulties but having atypical sensory processing is like a goldmine in some ways. I’m so glad you pointed this out and wrote such a detailed accounting. Maybe a good source of material for a post? 😉

      Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy your comments? It amazes me how much we have in common and yet how different we experience some things. 🙂 Your comments are like getting a little blog post in response to what I wrote, with lots of new information to mull over.

      1. Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy your comments? It amazes me how much we have in common and yet how different we experience some things. Your comments are like getting a little blog post in response to what I wrote, with lots of new information to mull over.

        Thank you so much… That made my day to hear:-) It also amazes me how much of what you describe sounds familiar to me… I think we’re arrived on many fairly similar coping strategies via widely different life experiences, yet some are very different.

        With synesthesia: what I experience may sound a bit synesthesia-like, but probably is not synesthesia, just strong imagination and strong integration of some senses. If it was synesthesia, I suppose I would SEE visuals, not imagine them? There is a clear difference between seeing visuals as if they were in the room (external… like hallucinations), and see them inside my mind. The latter is what happens to me with the tactile-visual experiences, it is as if when certain buttons on my feet are pressed, it triggers visuals in my hear. Stronger/more accurate pressure = stronger, deeper, more intense visuals, weaker pressure = weaker visuals and when they are strong then they are so intense that I’m flooded by the experience … but at no point in time do I see them around me, externally.

        With the sensory driving-tricks, when I say I SEE the lines, I mean that I imagine them and my imagination is so strong that it feels like I see them, my mind acts as if they’re there… but they don’t look like the real lines (then they would also just add to the clutter) – they are not like hallucinations, they are fantasies. Same with imagined sounds and rhythms – They don’t sound like real ones. Imagined touch sensations are not like real touch either, but much gentler, faster and more controlled.

        My mind is just easy to trick + I have a very active imagination = I can trick my mind to act as if what I imagine is real. Therefore I can make constructs that help me with timing, priority (highlight relevant details), processing (highlight & exaggerate relevant patterns), overview (highlight and sort relevant details), coordination (rhythm), order (simplify categories), decision making, are calming, help me start when I need to overcome a mental barrier et.c…

        Maybe a good source of material for a post?

        I’m have drafted about mind tricks for driving long time ago, inspired by Aspie Story’s post about driving & Aspergers. Initially it was a comment but there is so much in it I decided to make it a post, but then I found it very tricky to write and got stuck… A lot of of what I want to explain is in the comments I made on this post, so perhaps I can copy them over and use them to write that post. I think it will be about “sensory imagination” more generally, not just mind tricks of driving. I have wanted to write about that for a long time. I’m nervous people will think I am weird or attention seeking or something like that though. It feels safer to write about odd things here in the depths of your long comment tracks:-)

        1. I don’t experience synesthesia so I have no idea how it actually works. My daughter says that smells have color for her and she associates colors with certain people (because of how they smell) and I guess that’s a kind of imaginary experience? I’m just guessing, really.

          I think a post about sensory imagination would be very cool. You sound very tuned in to your imagination and how you can used your mind/imagination to your advantage. I don’t people would find it odd, well some might, but I think most of your readers would find it really fascinating. The way you talk about your imagination has me wanting to pay more attention to how I think. I have a comparatively passive approach to sensory imagination but I’m wondering if it’s because I haven’t made any effort to develop it more. So consider this a strong vote in favor. 🙂

        2. There are different types of synaesthesia and internal but uncontrollable visuals are one. There are terms for this but I’d have to look them up. It sounds like you get the visuals without thinking about having them and that there is a direct connection to the pressure so it sounds to me like it may be synaesthesia.

          1. I still don’t think so. I understand synaesthesia to be like this metaphor:

            Imagine two pianos, one is your tactile sense and the other is your vision, for example. When you touch the “C” key on piano 1, then the “E” key on piano two automatically get pushed. And so on. That is synaesthesia: the two keys are connected so as one touch activates those specific two keys simultaneously.

            However, what I experience, is that touch stimulates my visual imagination and (often) gives intense visual experiences. It is like my already relentlessly active visual imagination gets amplified. However, I don’t think it is synaesthesia because there is no consistency: it is different visuals, so it is more that touch boosts the tendency I already have to always have visual fantasies/images streaming in my head. The images become more intense, fascinating, detailed, deeper, faster, but each visual isn’t linked to a specific point of touch, the stream is just intensifying in a general way.

            It sounds like you get the visuals without thinking about having them

            I don’t understand that part of the sentence:-) What do you mean thinking about having them? I supposed they are in themselves thoughts?

            Also, while I don’t know for sure and I do think it is possible that my visual imagination is more active than average, I suppose it isn’t in itself unusual to always have visuals streaming in the mind (albeit people may not pay attention to it – I know I often don’t), it is part of the ongoing interpretation of the surroundings, right? Matching images with other images to create categories, make sense of patterns, visualise conclusions.

            I also presume that it isn’t unusual that some sensory experiences stimulate images, for example: for a lot of people, certain smells activates visual memories (I have that impression from reactions to smells described in fiction books – so it must be a theme that resonate with normal people). That is also the case for me, but touch can tend to be especially very stimulating for me, because I am a very tactile person, I often “translate” impressions to touch sensations (so it goes the other way too).

            What I mean is: perhaps some of what I experience is a bit synaesthesia-like but it is in a grey-zone, so if that is synaesthesia then a lot of normal people would have synaesthesia… I think it is perfectly normal to have some sensory overlap, people just don’t think about defining it and therefore don’t pay attention to it until they read about synaesthesia and then recognise some aspects of it.

    3. I totally agree – I want to go to that school, and I mean now not when I was a kid. I’d love the rollers and the lady with the big ball, and the twirly tea tray.

      I find your description of synesthesia/connected senses of pressure and vision very interesting. I find that listening to sounds makes me “feel” movement. I’ve never found anyone else who does and yours in the most similar I’ve heard of. If I’m listening to music that fills my attention, I feel or see or somehow experience whole body movement. But I’m not actually moving. It’s like an internal dance I suppose. It also happens sometimes for other patterns of sounds but can be distracting eg I hear the prosody and pitch of speech and get the accompanying pattern of movement but totally ignore the content! This doesn’t happen very often because usually I’m focused in words rather than sound, and it only happens when I’m relaxed and that’s not often during a conversation!

      1. Thanks for your reply. It seems like there is a market for sensory playgrounds for adult kids!

        I’m not sure if what I am experience is synesthesia (see my reply to Cynthia just above). What you describe does sound like synesthesia. I’m glad you can relate anyway, it makes me feel less odd:-)

        When I visualise the curves of intonation to hear something better (for example), then I usually experience enhanced understanding, it doesn’t distract me from the content. It sounds like in your case sensory cross-over experiences may compete with paying attention to the words:-) which is interesting.

        1. A sensory playground for adults – great idea. I’d pay to go to it, IF it was low light and quiet, so as not to get over-stimulated. If that makes sense – guess I’m asking for sensory input but not the loud kind or bright kind.
          One can dream, yes? 🙂

  8. Thanks for this post. I was thinking about this, also because there are (autistic) people on my Twitter timeline who often explicitly indicate their sensory needs and overloads and I think it’s something I need to look into some more.
    Problem is, I find it so difficult to determine these things. To discover whether something is enough or too much, or whether something is relaxing me or not. I mean, I can try something new, like a darkened room, a heavier blanket, anything, and it may not be relaxing initially because it’s a new thing. Maybe it will work in the longer term, but how long should I try it out. I often only notice something is off after a while, so it’s difficult to determine, because there are so many different factors: things that happened during the day, things I may have heard or read, the food Iate/eat/might eat, activities I have or don’t know, the weather, something I am suddenly worrying about that happened 4 days ago, ….

    But it’s really nice to have these examples, and some structure in them, so that I can try to figure things out.

    1. What really helps for me is building on the things I already enjoy. Making a sensory “landscape” of things I find pleasing. For example, I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of certain fabrics like silk, so now that I know about tactile sensory stimuli, I make sure to always have a silk handkerchief with me to rub against my cheek if I want to (and also for cleaning my smartphone screen! double win). Same with bright colours that I find pleasing, like painting my bedroom bright green. I build on that and make sure I have some brightly coloured photos or objects that I can gaze at when I feel unsettled. It works for anything that you already enjoy. You just need to broaden your perspective and think about what is it about things that you particularly like, in a sensory way, and then use those exact things to help you self-regulate. Make a list, if that helps!

    2. I get this. It took me a long time to figure out not only what might work but how each thing works or when to use it. Watching videos on youtube (searching for sensory diet turns up quite a few), reading about what other autistic people use and slowly looking at one aspect of my life at a time helped.

      For me, I seem to know right away if something feels good in a sensory way, even if it’s a new experience. But if you need some time to figure out if something is having an effect, try it for like a week – like using a heavy blanket for an hour while watching TV or reading each evening. Then, at the end of the week, try to take a general “temperature” reading of how you felt overall. In other words, try to focus more on your “big picture” regulation rather than any specific effect the sensory activity might be having on an hourly or daily basis. Sensory regulation can have a delayed effect. Sometimes I know something is more not just because it feels good while I’m doing it but because I generally feel less frazzled that day or the next day or in general.

      Be patient and don’t be afraid to experiment and fail at times. For example, I read a lot about how great tangles (fidget toys) are but for me they aren’t very effective. Then I saw a review of putty and remembered how much I loved Silly Putty as a kid. In fact, thinking back to the types of toys or objects you enjoyed playing with in childhood can be a great way to identify your instinctive needs for sensory input.

      1. Tahnks for the tips, the ‘big picture’ thing. I am looking into buying a weighted blanket, and see that they have the option to try it out for 2 weeks before purchasing!

  9. Thank you so very much for this. I have sensory needs and sensitivities and so does my son. He is a jumper – loves to run and jump and climb this helps him to feel calm. He also walks on his toes a lot I understand this is very common. Taste wise he cannot stand the mixing of flavours or metal spoons. Certain foods have to be served separately. He also finds chewing gum soothing. I need scents memory and soothing. I smell my friend regularly because I find her scent is soothing, not terribly socially appropriate I know. I need low visual input, certain lights make me feel calm. I cannot work in a dark room. Taste wise certain foods make me calm porridge for example and I need hot food cannot stand food that is not served piping hot. A hot cup of tea perfect. Very interested in your thoughts around desensitisation. I have been trying to desensitise myself to a weird fear of nails and nail polish but I think you are right. I don’t need to acclimatise I just need to avoid it. I like deep pressure definitely my mum used to lay on my arms when I felt scared going to sleep as a child. I like pressure now hugs and squeezes. I think I will look at a weighted blanket I’ve always had a comfort blanket anyway. Thank you so much for helping me make sense of the world.

    1. I’m a jumper too! It’s a little harder to fulfill those urges when you’re not a kid anymore. 🙂

      It sounds like you have a great grasp of both your son’s and your sensory needs and sensitivities. He’s lucky to have a mom who gets it and helps him fulfill his needs.

  10. Reading this was a big “duh” moment. So obvious really, but I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it. I am more aware of sensory things I don’t like, bit there are actually things I do that make me feel good too. I will definitely give this some thought and see if there are any areas where I can do something to improve my quality of life because I am not good at self regulation including sensory self regulation and I feel that making it easier in one domain will lessen the overall demands on energy and coping.
    May I spill the contents of my thoughts? It really helps me get ideas straight, and I find it interesting to see others experiences so maybe this will be vaguely useful to others too.

    Things I do now: I love to wear heavy clothes – jumpers, cardigans, coats; I like heavy covers on the bed and to be wrapped up tight, but only if it’s smooth; I like to stretch, both exercise/yoga type stretches and twisting into odd positions and hanging off things; I like the rocking motion you get on horseback or in the sea (I don’t currently have access to these activities); I wear coloured glasses to cut out the specific wavelengths of light that hurt me; I spend time out doors as much as possible and look out of windows and have the window open; I have two 20 minute rests each day where I have no deliberate input at all, just lying still in silence; knitting at every opportunity, and nearly all the time I sit still; leaning my whole body on furniture in odd ways to create pressure eg put torso onto seat of a stool and pull feet up so all weight on the seat (yes i know it’s weird); pressing, moving, tapping, spinning, rolling myself and general fidgety behaviour as well as “vocal fidgets” like humming or singing repetitively; lying face down with my fists underneath my abdomen to create pressure; exercise is very important to me.

    Things I used to do that weren’t healthy but his helps me to understand and forgive: eating very little because of the sensations it creates; eating too much for the same reason; eating loads of chilly until the amount I had to add to make things taste hot was ridiculous; exercising too much; holding my breath for as long as I could.

    I absolutely love the idea of deliberately giving oneself the sensory experiences needed to feel good. It’s so obvious, yet I never thought of it consciously. I think I will start by noticing what things make me feel good and in which way they affect me. Then I’ll have a repertoire of actions available as needed for different situations. I bet this is somehow linked to not being very good at identifying how I feel and what I need.

    Sorry this has got very long. Thank you for a very thought provoking article and for giving me valuable “homework”.

    1. I love heavy clothes and blankets and odd positions and hanging off things too! In fact, we have a lot of sensory likes in common. When I read your list, I want to run off and do all of those things right now. 🙂

      There’s a lot of emphasis on managing sensory sensitivities when you read about sensory stuff for people on the spectrum. And I think that’s a natural concern because sensory input can be really triggering and unpleasant. But since I’ve started focusing on intentionally doing the things I like, I find that I’m a lot better at self-regulating, especially under stress. And you’re right about it being difficult to identify sensory diet options because it’s sometimes hard to know what we’re feeling. It’s taken me months to figure out which activities are helpful and in what situations I might want to use them. But it’s been worth the effort and time. Your plan to come up with a repertoire of actions sounds great.

      And, literally, there is no such thing as a comment that is too long here.

      1. Learning about sensory processing and difficulties for people on the spectrum has actually helped me to figure out why some sunglasses weren’t working for me. I always enjoyed brown tinted sunglasses more, but I didn’t realise it was because of the colour. Knowing this about myself has given me the ability to say, “Nope, not buying black/blue sunglasses, I don’t like how they make the world look.” It can be that simple.

        1. Hmmm, I always buy brown tinted sunglasses as well. In fact, I currently have a brown tinted pair that I love and wear daily and a black tinted pair that have equally comfortable frames but I’ve only worn once.

          1. Have you looked into Irlen syndrome at all? It is the name for light sensitivity related to neural processing of specific colours of light. It’s only recently been understood although people have known for a long tine that coloured glasses or overlays help reduce visual stress when reading, and reduce headaches and general visual discomfort. It is common in people with dyslexia, aspergers, and other related conditions as well as in the general population. http://www.irlen.org.uk

            I have a pair of glasses with tinted lenses and they let me go into buildings where the lights were too painful to stay long without them. The wrong colour is either useless or can make it worse.

            1. I didn’t know there was a specific name for it, because I just file it under “atypical sensory processing”, same as sound and texture and proprioception which are all a bit different in my brain than in neurotypical brains.

              However, I have thought about maybe trying to see if I can find some tinted contact lenses, not tinted on the iris but on the pupil, to give the effect of sunglasses but in situations where you can’t get away with wearing them (like in a job interview). It would take away a lot of sensory stress for me, especially with glaring overhead lighting and things like that. Don’t need more stress at job interviews!

  11. Again a wonderful informative post.

    The more I read the more I understand 🙂 I never had a hard time understanding sensory issues because in my near family at least 3 of us (my sibling and I and my mother) all have sensory issues. My mother is the person I know with less interoception (I didn’t have that word and now it makes me happy 🙂 ). She may be feeling pain and if you ask where or what kind of pain she can only answer in very general terms, at least compared to other people. Or she may not notice she is hungry until her blood pressure drops, or not notice she is tired and keep working until suddenly she runs out of energy. My mother also had a phase after menopause when she became very sensitive to seams in clothing (why do factories use scratchy thread in soft fabrics?), but now either she learned to buy clothes she can handle or she is less sensitive.

    My brother uses sunglasses even at night. Funnily, he says that even more important than light protection is wind protection. He also prefers brown-tinted sunglasses (hi, autisticook!).

    I have a lot of sensory issues, but not very visible for other people. There’s a couple of “terrible sounds that are painful”, there are a few tactile issues with clothes. I have some proprioperceptive issues (clumsy, bump into things, like pressure) but I have a lot of vestibular issues. It’s mostly in situations with conflicting input. The usual (motion sickness) and the not so usual (nausea caused by, to just name a few: fast scrolling in a computer screen, flickering lights, seeing repetitive stripes in stairs (like stopped escalators or going up a stair with spaces betweeen the steps), movies with handheld cameras, the computer game “Portal”, op-art patterns in clothing…). I do love patterns, though, as long as I don’t get nausea from them. On the other hand, with taste I am sensory seeking and am considered adventurous and easy to feed. It’s not easy for me to get nauseated from food.

    Most of the vestibular activities you suggest sound like they would be hard for me (I can’t even ride a bike), with the exception of rocking and swinging (where can I find a swing?).

    1. Escalator patterns are super annoying! Sometimes I have to walk up or down a stopped escalator at the train station, it’s terrible because it makes me go dizzy in a weird way and confuse the height of the steps, so I always have to stare at the opposite wall and just guess how high the steps are. And one of the reasons I quit a dance class was because the pattern of holes in the gym wall gave me headaches. Sensitivity to spatial frequency is not funny.

      1. That sounds awful. I can’t look anywhere but straight ahead on escalators because I have a fear of heights that seems to be vertigo related and moving heights are especially bad.

      2. So I am not the only one sensitive to patterns (exactly, it’s a matter of frequency!). The funny thing is that when the spatial patterns do not cause me nausea I love most of them. It’s like they mesmerize me 🙂

  12. First off: I really like your hands in the video. Had to say it.

    Second: Thank you for this article. As someone who has sensory issues and sharing this with people that just don’t “get it” has helped a lot. It also helped me in accepting my own issues. The moment I had was a “why didn’t I think of this before!” moment.

    Sharing a bit of my issues: being in a car (and sometimes a house) with the air condition on is torture. I get headaches that last hours and nauseated to the point I don’t like to eat before or during summer car trips. Whispering. The sound and feel of someone whispering to me is quite jarring and unnerving. Everyone I try to explain it to asks “How can you feel a whisper?” I can’t explain it but the feeling is wrong in my ears. Soft touches, especially a caress, is too much. I can be punched, pinched, hit and I won’t react but if you touch me softly I will jump a mile high and shove myself to the other end of the room if I can. Gets in the way of my social life quite a bit. I am sometimes too rough when it is inappropriate situations and as a side effect sometimes too soft in others.

    These, of course, are only a few but I will definitely be trying this “diet”.

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I’m glad the article was helpful for you. These bits of self-understanding go a long way toward accepting the things that are difficult for us.

      I’m glad you brought up whispering. I’ve seen a few parents mention that their children are very upset by whispering and they just can’t understand why. It’s not one of my sensitivities, but it’s helpful for an adult to mention it and describe a bit about how it feels (in case any parents are reading and have encountered this with their children).

      1. I am glad I can shed some light on whispering sensitivity. 🙂

        A little bit more information on why whispering bothers me for those with children and others: As I mentioned before the feel of a whisper bothers me more than the sound of a whisper. The best way I can describe it is; you know the pins and needles feeling one gets when their leg or foot falls asleep and they walk on it? That is almost how a whisper feels in my ears. Uncomfortable but not quite pain.

        I hope this helps.

  13. I have a confession with regards to interoception. I like energy drinks. I like the way they wake me up and make me work smoothly, but I have doubts that all of that is directly attributable to the caffeine working on my brain. I notice elevated heart rate as well as alertness, I can feel my heart pumping. If I think back, I drink them occasionally as a way to get a particular sensory experience of being “wired”.

    I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not seeking interoceptive stimulation from being able to feel my heart pumping, my brain kicking up a notch from the caffeine etc.

    This is, of course, not a healthy way to get interoceptive input, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

    If I had to try and think of a healthy way, I’d side with the above mentions of mindfulness of how your body’s feeling. Some kind of interoceptive meditation.

  14. Thank you so much for these posts. My dd is only 5 so not able to describe or self-regulate her SPD so this is incredibly helpful to me in getting a feel for what she experiences. She has been assessed as not on the spectrum but isolated sensory processing issues. She gets thirst-rage and seeks out physically challenging and even dangerous activities, avoids foods and drinks, and although it affects all her senses, her main issues are with proprioception, interoception and vestibular, which are difficult for others around her to comprehend and deal with, or for her either I guess. Thanks again, I will be directing my oh and others to read these and gain better understanding of how she functions.

  15. Ooh, interception! I take deep breaths too sometimes! I find if I do cardio my chest can start hurting just a little bit and I really like it. If I do too much, then my chest hurts too much and it’s awful – part of why I hated PE so much in school.

    I also like a gentle feeling of falling – there was a high speed road we used to drive down occasionally when I was a kid, and it had a small drop in it, and I loved when we went over it a bit fast!

    Often when I’m on my phone (like now) I sort half-sit, half-lay on my bed, with my upper back against the headboard. I’ve only just now realized it’s good pressure input! I am so under sensitive – my recommend weight for weighted blankets is 5.5-6kg. I sleep with 20kg worth, and would like more! I am uncrushable!

    Posts like this make me realize how under- stimulated I often am. I have noticed when I’m overstimulated, my executive functioning gets worse, and I have wondered if it also gets worse when I’m under- stimulated too. I’m now thinking of tryna make me a sensory diet – probably starting with buying a packet of strong mints!

    Also, note to self – find out if park at end of street has swings.

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