{Sensory Diet} What is it? Should it be on your IEP?

sensory diet and what is it how to get it in your IEP twinkle lights

Sensory Diet Example

When Kevin was in preschool, he had a fall that required stitches. Looking back, I suspect it may have actually been a seizure fall instead of just a clumsy fall, but it’s just one of those things I didn’t know about seizures, but wish I did. Anyway, so I took him down to Dupont to the ER and we waited for several hours.

A couple of doctors came in, and quite somberly they explained to me what a papoose is (in a hospital sense) and how they likely were going to have to use one on Kevin in order to close up his wound. I had to sign some forms (it’s a form of restraint) and they were quite nervous about it. I didn’t really understand what the big deal was, because I knew Kevin was going to love it. But, I guess not all kids do. So they bring it in, and it’s this big stretcher-like thing with huge velcro straps. And they fastened him in really tight.

sensory diet

And he loved it. For the first time that afternoon, I watched him relax. It was like he breathed this huge sigh and just enjoyed being wound up so tight to this board. It gave him the sensory input he had been craving all day–since everyone was making him sit still because of his cut. He’s had to use it in medical settings several times since then and I joke that I’d like one for our home.

So there’s this old joke about sensory diets. I looked for it online but cannot find it. And even though I’ve heard it at least a dozen times, I’m having trouble remembering the exact words.

But it goes something like “I asked my IEP team for a sensory diet and they said ‘our cafeteria doesn’t serve that.’ “

Get it? I didn’t say it was a very funny joke. But, if your IEP team has said that to you, chances are your IEP is garbage.

What is a Sensory Diet?

A sensory diet is a planned course or routine of activities and exercises to accommodate or grow (diminish?) your child’s sensory needs. Not sure if I want to use grow or diminish, because the idea is to grow their tolerance for sensory aversions that they have, but at the same time, diminish their sensory activities that interrupt their ability to access their education.

For kids who are sensory seekers, it is a timed list or set of activities that satisfies their sensory needs. The goal is to be able to relax them, or meet that need so that they can focus. For example, I have a sensory seeker here in my house, and we allow him trampoline time before activities such as eating or working with his therapists. That way he is able to focus on the task at hand instead of seeking sensory input while they are trying to teach him.

The opposite of that would be a quiet room or rest period. Some kids achieve sensory overload  and need to reset or regroup, or they cannot focus on the activity or task requested.

It also does not necessarily have to be before or after the task requested. ADHD Fidget Toys, sitting on big balls and those rubber band things some kids use at their feet could be a part of a child’s sensory diet that occurs at the same time as the requested task.

IEP Sensory Diet

All with all supports and services on your IEP, this will be driven by your child’s identified needs. Their evaluation reports or Present Levels should list sensory needs, and then their should be IEP goals based upon those needs. Those goals might include increasing the amount of learning time in between sensory breaks, learning self advocacy to ask for when they need a sensory break, or increasing the amount of time they can tolerate something, such as noise or activity.

If this is not listed as one of your child’s areas of need, ask for it in an IEP evaluation.

Who decides what activities are in the sensory diet?

Most of the time OTs handle sensory stuff. However, if your child has big gross motor sensory needs, that might include the PT. Here at my home, K’s OT has done it and so has his BCBA. Anyone who has training and experience with sensory issues should be able to develop a sensory diet for your child. And, as a parent, you can certainly list what activities work in your Parent Concerns Letter.

Editing to add: I’m putting this here as I was contacted by an OT.

Occupational Therapists, and to a lesser extend Physical Therapists, study in-depth anatomy (including hands on cadaver directions), physiology and most importantly neuroanatomy and neuropathology.  That is not the case for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and other professionals that may have been exposed to sensory integration techniques.  Therefore, I would highly encouraged parents to address sensory processing issues with OTs that no only know the “what” but also have been trained to know the “why”, “how” and “what if”.  Many sensory-based strategies and tools can trigger adversed responses that require clinical knowledge to be analyzed, modify as needed, or immediately discontinued.  That is not part of the training that Board Certified Behavior Analyst receive.  Even further, many physicians, nurse practitioners and other health professionals lack the in-depth understanding of sensory processing integration and associated disorders.  More research has identified interoceptive dysfunction as a sense that  requires a closer attention when trying to device strategies and tools for students with sensory processing/integration challenges.  Interception, the 8th sense, after the well know 5 + proprioceptive and vestibular, is a a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. Kids who struggle with the interoceptive sense may have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty. Having trouble with this sense can also make self-regulation a challenge).

Sensory Diet Activities

Chances are, even if you don’t have a formal sensory diet for your child, they’ve been self-implementing one. And the thing about these sensory needs is, you cannot ignore them or try to stop them. They are going to occur, so it’s best to have it planned out with appropriate activities.

For example, my son craves big, gross motor movement. So, he would frequently jump on his bed. That’s not particularly safe, so we blocked access to his bed except for bedtime. Guess what? Then he started jumping on his brother’s bed. And when we blocked access to that, he’d find either our bed or the sofa. (maybe we’re not such quick learners!) Eventually we got him both an indoor and and outdoor trampoline.

My point is-whatever unusual or stimming behavior that you see, it’s likely fulfilling a sensory or self-soothing need. Making the behavior or activity go away will not make the need go away.

Sensory Break Ideas-Gross Motor

Some therapists will refer to this as “heavy work.”

In addition to a trampoline, you can try:

  • A swing
  • Running or jumping
  • Dancing in place
  • Walking on a balance beam
  • Bear Hugs
  • Wheelbarrow walk your child
  • Any “big” activity that can take place in a gym or outside, such as jump rope, hopscotch or gymnastics/tumbling
  • Ask your child what they like to do

Real life applications can include walking papers down to the main office at school or pushing a heavy shopping cart or stroller.

Sensory Diet-Smaller Fine Motor

Sensory Break Examples-Tactile

You and your child’s team can best determine what needs your child has. Because when it comes tactile, there are seekers and there are those with aversions. What you choose and the frequency will depend on that.

Some ideas are:

  • Squishy Balls or toys
  • Slinky
  • “Magic Wands” or sparkly tubes
  • Cause and effect noise toys
  • Bubbles
  • Sensory play such as with sand, beans or Play Doh
  • Snow

Real life applications or classroom applications can include: Ripping paper, craft projects such as glitter or finger paint, and food groups (to introduce new tastes).

Sensory Diet on IEP-Follow Up

Over the years, I’ve seen a few issues that repeat themselves when it comes to kids and having Sensory Diets or Sensory Breaks on their IEP. Here are a few of them.

Requiring the child to request the activity: Is the child even capable of this? Or are they too shy, lack confidence, won’t remember, etc.? I never really understand this one. We don’t require that our kids request other IEP services, so why this one? That being said, if the child needs self-advocacy skills, this is a good way to work toward that goal. I just don’t like it being required if the child doesn’t currently have the skill set. Because if they are embarrassed to ask, they don’t. Then it builds up and they act out, all because they didn’t get their sensory break.

Making the child earn the sensory break: This one is really mind boggling. And I once called out a teacher on it as she was reading it from the IEP. I said to her, flat out: “The days that he needs sensory breaks the most, are the days when he is least likely to earn one.” She got it. A light bulb went off. It has to be a change in thinking–a sensory need is a real need. It’s not a play time reward. They are designed to be preventative in nature.

Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach: IEP teams just get stuck in ruts sometimes. They have this list of sensory activities, and they have the equipment to go with it, so hot damn they’re going to use it. For every kid. Everyone has sensory needs and aversions, not just disabled kids. But how I handle and prevent sensory overload for me and how my husband handles it for himself are completely different. Our kids are different too. Make sure that their ideas fit your child’s needs.

We are all on Sensory Diets.

Every single one of us is on a sensory diet. Just for most of us, it’s not formalized and written down and measured. And, lots of us have the ability to self-identify and self-regulate our sensory needs. We either seek out a large crowd or party, or stay home alone with a book. As adults, when we are forced into situations, most of us can fake it for a certain amount of time. Kids cannot necessarily do that.

If your child lacks those skills and needs a sensory diet, get it added to their IEP. Good luck!

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