The Sensory Diet: A Bare Necessity

Sensory Diet

As some of you may know, Stevie is doing great at his new school. When we first toured the school, we knew that it was made just for him. It was a perfect match. And when the local school offered to send him there, we knew it was a match made in Heaven.

Not that there haven’t been any bumps along the way, there have been plenty. It isn’t a magic cure for his behavior difficulties.  But it is a school that Stevie loves to go to when he has never liked school before.

His school runs year round—there are no long summer breaks. Even Christmas break is short and there is no “February Break” or Spring Break like our public schools have. At first I was worried he’d be upset about missing his summer off , but I worried for nothing. He did well over the one-week break in July and was crazy excited to go back!

So what is the big deal? Why is this school working so well? It’s at least in part because when they say they are implementing a sensory diet, they mean it. They are consistent about it and they are  intentional about the sensory activities he gets in the day.

The school has implemented a simple routine for him.  He has a chart with 4 activities on it.  The teachers get to fill in the first 3, and Stevie gets to pick the 4th as a reward. One of the four tasks on his board is always a specific sensory activity like the swing that hugs.  It’s something that will provide the proprioceptive and vestibular input that he needs so desperately.

The board would look something like this:

Stevie's Chart

Once Stevie completes the 4 tasks, they wipe off the board and start over. They do this throughout the entire day so Stevie knows what to expect, and his cute once-little body that is growing way faster than this Mom is ok with, is getting what it needs, too.

Besides the one sensory task that is part of the 4 activities on his chart, they integrate other sensory activities into his day. When we observed him at school (and watch through the 2-way mirror with speakers—it’s totally awesome!) he was sitting on the gym mats in the OT room, reading a book while cocooned in a stretchy blanket.  At home, he spends many hours cocooned like that and he even sleeps wrapped up in a similar way.  He never wanted to read before, even though he is very good at it. He started reading at the age of 3 but as he has become more sensory seeking than avoiding, he just hasn't had the focus for sitting and reading a book...until now!

It is a breath of fresh air to have teachers and specialists that “get” autism and the sensory system. They understand the sensory needs are very real and go out of their way to give the kids in their school what their sensory systems need.

Sensory diets are not viewed as rewards, but rather viewed as activities that are needed in order for his body to be regulated and able to take in information and process it more appropriately.

Plain and simply put: he needs the strict diet in order to learn and be happy (emotionally regulated).

Back in our preschool searching days for Stevie, we visited many that used sensory equipment as a reward for good behavior, which is as backwards (and disrespectful to the way his body works) as can be.

For example, if the child wanted to sit on the big balance ball, they needed to sit still and “work” first.  But that poor child can’t sit still until he has the sensory input that ball gives him!

Stevie needs the sensory input in order to have good behavior and to be ready to take in new information. It should never be looked at as something to earn. That would be like telling someone with reading glasses they can’t use them until they can read a book and answer questions about it’s content without them!


(Chat time in the comments!)

How does your child respond to a sensory diet?

What is included in your child’s diet?

I’d love to hear from you!


How Sensory Processing Effects My Boys’ Ability to Learn

Ability To Learn


Construction Paper. This is the material Stevie has glommed on to this Summer.  He has declared the path from the main door through the entire downstairs a "construction zone" and he would have put detour signs up if it were possible to detour around the path he has chosen. It's not.

With simple construction accessories such as scissors and tape, he has masterfully created Hannaford grocery store with 2 levels, Elevators--not "any old elevator" but specific ones that he loves, Wendy's, Tim Hortons, you name it.  He has also created peacocks in 3-D of course, because that is what you do.


Stevie has always like to create things from paper, ever since he could cut with scissors, which was a skill that took forever to learn because he didn't like the feel of them.  It literally took more than a year for him to put his fingers in the scissors finger holes. Once he did, he didn't seem to know how to apply pressure, or enough pressure to make them work, let alone follow a line to cut along. Add to that, the fact that he is a born perfectionist. The line must be cut perfectly, so he never did it. Even after he could cut with scissors, which wasn't until he was graduating from preschool, he would have me cut things for him. 

The same was true for other things like coloring his favorite characters. He would want me to do it for him, so it wouldn't be messy (and I had better be on my best coloring behavior!).

DCP_6089 - Version 3


Stevie always had a good pencil grip. He's had a love for drawing since he was born and was drawing stars starting around age 1. So his delay in learning to uses scissors was more due to sensory issues (and perhaps coordination) than fine motor potential.  The sensory issues created a fine motor & gross motor delay.

His Gravitational Insecurity (inability to feel himself "grounded" on the floor) and Tactile Defensiveness (touch hurts or tickles, triggering the fight or flight mode, if not given with the right amount of pressure) along with other sensory distortions he experienced caused delays in development like:

He was afraid to walk, so he had me carry him everywhere.

He didn't climb stairs alone until around age 3.

He didn't leave his crib until age 3, because he never tried to get out of it. (That would have required climbing.)

He was drawing by age 1, but didn't use scissors until age 5.

He didn't like the feel of a cold toilet seat, so he didn't sit on one until around age 6.

He still doesn't click in his own seatbelt (now age 9) because he doesn't know hard he needs to push to achieve the latch. (He certainly can get his seatbelt undone though!)

It's amazing how sensory processing issues can really hinder a childs learning ability.  When you are afraid to move and experience new things, feel new textures or touch unfamiliar toys, it is very hard to gain any information...except how to avoid those things.


My other son, who has the opposite collection of sensory distortions had a mixed blessing with his bag of tricks.  His hyper-activeness (like none you have ever seen before--I promise!) made him:

Unable to walk--he ran everywhere!

Unable notice things.

Unable to sit still--we had to resort to videos to capture his early years. All photo's were blurry!

Unable to listen to stories.

Unable to focus on what is being said.

Miss a lot of opportunities to learn.

At the same time, he was everywhere all at once and got his whole body INTO everything. He experienced more sensations during his preschool years than most do in a lifetime!











He learned a lot about velocity, force and motion just by being in constant motion. He was the boy trying to run through a door that has a child swinging through it,  at just the right moment so that no one gets hit by the swing. Yup. Age 3. He was the stunt-boy climbing to the top of the preschool's climbing equipment and timed his escape over the 6 foot solid panel wooden fence (on the opposite side of the play area) perfectly so his teacher could not possibly stop him. (He was safely captured in the parking lot across the street!)

The child had amazing balance when he was moving. He never got hurt.  He was moving so frequently, and he was still so not-frequently, that he never developed the muscles needed to balance while being still. He could not stand on a balance beam without falling off, but ask him to run across it? No problem. 

Simply amazing, the differences the sensory experience can create for each person.  


Are you a seeker? Learning best by getting into everything and experiencing all that comes your way but unable to learn while sitting still?

Or are you an avoider? Are you cautious to try new things and requiring a calm, save environment in order to learn without distraction? 


For further reading: