What are Sensory Diets?
Chances are if you work within the field of autism, are autistic yourself, or have an autistic family member you will have heard of sensory diets. So – what are they?
Sensory diets are something that has come out of Sensory Integrative Therapy. Whilst the term sensory diet was (I think) first coined by Patricia Wilbarger, Sensory Integrative Therapy (SIT) can be largely credited to the early work of Jean Ayres in the 1960s.
SIT is based on the idea that some people – particularly those with autism and sensory processing disorder – have difficult processing sensory information from the world around them. The therapy is meant to help them manage or deal with all this input.
Sensory diets then are personalised daily schedules that are designed to meet an individual’s sensory needs, with the prediction being that if these needs are met then the individual will be able to better engage with their environment and subsequently be able to learn. It isn’t really to do with providing coping mechanisms or resources to help deal with any of the issues surrounding sensory processing although a good occupational therapist would provide these alongside a sensory diet.
These diets are personalised. An occupational therapist would spend time with a person, determine where there are sensory needs and develop an individualised sensory schedule for the individual to follow throughout their day. This might include activities at certain times, activities before certain events, or activities such as regular intervals. How it is lain out depends on the individual OT. An example for a hypothetical student might be:
Before breakfast: Heavy lifting (help carry chairs to table; take laundry basket downstairs) and Bear Hugs.
During breakfast: Once seated provide deep massage to shoulders and wipe around mouth with warm flannel.
Transition to school: Weighted backpack
Arriving at school: Wall push-ups and then sit on chair with exercise band around legs to allow movement.
These different things are intended to provide different sensory inputs that will be of benefit to the individual.
Do they actually work?
Well – you will find a reasonable amount of anecdotal evidence but the scientific research is so far inconclusive. There certainly are activities that people enjoy and these might serve to improve their general demeanour or mood – but whether it is helping because it is helping sensory information processing is not clear. What research does suggest is that for sensory diets to be successful they need to be designed by a skilled OT and carried out consistently, and sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to get an OT out to see the people in question. In my current workplace with autistic children – I have seen an OT twice in four years. That was for two out of over twenty students. Since settings are often reluctant to introduce anything that even looks like a sensory diet without input from an OT and OTs are so hard to actually see, it’s easy to see why research is so limited and inconclusive. Many autistic people and parents resort to just experimenting after researching sensory diets online, and seeing what works for them, whereas professional settings don’t have that freedom just in case something goes wrong.
Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.