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