What Is a Sensory Diet and How Do I Use One?

Contrary to what it may sound like, a sensory diet doesn’t have to do with eating. 

The term “sensory diet” was coined by Patricia Wilbarger, MA, OTR. It’s a program of specific sensory activities put into a schedule according to a child’s individual sensory needs. According to Wilbarger, sensory diets should include:

      1. A schedule of the day’s events
      2. Sensory activities
      3. A transition strategy

I’ve seen some disconnect when it comes to understanding what a “sensory diet” should and could be. For example, sensory diets implemented without any input from the student or family members. I’ve also seen parents ask for a sensory diets with one specific sensory tool at a specific time every day. Those don’t tend to work out so well. 

I personally disagree with some forms of sensory diets (the super rigid, structured kind) for one main reason:

Every day is different.

Routines can be helpful for some, but it also might contribute to increased rigidity. It also could lead to anxiety when something new or different happens in their day. It’s important to be flexible when creating a sensory diet, and I also believe it’s important that the person the sensory diet is for has some autonomy in the process. 

In my opinion, developing a sensory diet is an ongoing process of trial and error. Some days, one sensory strategy might work better than another, or they might not even need a sensory strategy at that particular time on that particular day. Other days, there might be a time when their designated sensory tool isn’t available. Flexibility and having choices can help manage those “detour” days.

I prefer to make sensory diets by first giving a questionnaire to the parent/guardian/student to get an idea of what the sensory needs are. Then I designate several times throughout the day where they can “check in” with how they’re feeling, and then pick one from a choice of at least 3-4 sensory activities. I make a point to have something along the lines of “no sensory needed” as an option, because let’s face it, sometimes sensory isn’t the only self-regulation strategy.

There’s no perfect way to make a sensory diet, but there are some helpful guidelines that can make the process a little smoother. There are lots of templates on the internet for sensory diets, but you can find mine here.